March is National Women’s History Month, so this month we would like to profile a remarkable German woman who is at the forefront of the international efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Her name is Özlem Türeci, and she is the co-founder, with her husband Dr. Ugur Sahin, of BioNTech. BioNTech was the first company to develop a vaccine, based on a new technology using messenger RNA, to receive approval by all the international authorities for immunization against the COVID-19 virus.
Where the Vaccine Started
As many may already know, the COVID-19 vaccine was developed in less that a year, and claimed to have been developed according to the “highest scientific and ethical standards” (BioNTech website). The company had been working on messenger RNA treatments for cancer patients and saw its potential in use during pandemics. When Dr. Sahin read an article in the medical journal, ‘The Lancet’, that indicated a coronavirus was spreading rapidly throughout China, he was convinced that it would become a full-blown pandemic (source: New York Times). BioNTech began working immediately in January, 2020 on the project to develop a vaccine and called it Project Lightspeed. BioNTech had been working on a flu vaccine with Pfizer since 2018, and in March of 2020, they agreed to cooperate on developing the COVID-19 vaccine together.
Özlem Türeci: Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of BioNTech
According to the BioNTech website, Dr. Türecki came to BioNTech in 2008 as a member of the clinical advisory board before she became the CMO in 2018. In 2011, she and her husband, Dr. Sahin, founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which they later sold to Astellas Pharma Inc. Dr. Türeci is the Chair and a founder of the charitable organization Ci3, which is specialized in individualized immune intervention as a part of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. She is also a private lecturer and is an internationally sought speaker in her field. She has received many academic recognitions and awards and was named the Person of the Year in 2020 by the Financial Times (Wikipedia).
A Remarkable Woman: A Brief Biography
According to Wikipedia, Dr. Türeci was born on March 6, 1967 in Lastrup, Turkey. Her father was a surgeon in Istanbul and her mother was a biologist. They moved to Germany, where she became a German citizen. She made her Abitur in Saarland and went on to receive her medical degree and PhD at the University of Saarland in 1992. She became a recognized expert in the field of immunology, active in the academic sphere, research and ultimately as an entrepreneurial talent.
Her husband, Dr. Sahin, was born in Turkey, and his family moved to Cologne when he was four. His parents both worked in the Ford factory there. Dr. Sahin grew up and studied medicine. He earned his PhD in 1993 at the University of Cologne for his work in immunotherapy in cancer cells.
She married her husband and business partner in 2002. After selling the medical firm Ganymed in 2016, which they had founded together in 2001, the pair became the wealthiest Turkish Germans in the country. In the meantime, BioNTech was developing a wider range of technologies, including using messenger RNA, to treat cancer. “We want to build a large European pharmaceutical company’, Dr. Sahin is quoted as saying in an interview with a Wiesbaden newspaper. Currently the company has over 1,800 employees internationally. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $55 million in its work to treat H.I.V. and tuberculosis.
Today Drs. Türeci and Sahin live with their teenage daughter in a modest apartment near their work. These billionaires ride their bikes to work every day and do not own a car. According to an article from November of 2020 in The New York Times, Dr. Türeci had originally had ‘early hopes of becoming a nun’. Perhaps today we can look at her as a medical Mother Teresa for her great achievements in helping the world fight back the COVID-19 pandemic with amazing modesty and highest ethical standards.
Sources: BioNTech website, Wikipedia, ‘The Husband-and-Wife Team Behind the Leading Vaccine to Solve Covid-19’, The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2020, by David Gelles