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The Multicultural Team Behind the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine

By Susan Eymann, MS08 Mar 2021

In December 2020, a SARS-CoV-2, coronavirus vaccine developed through a collaboration between multi-national Pfizer Inc., and a German company BioNTech, was approved for emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is now being distributed to vaccinate thousands of Americans. 

The developers of the vaccine that will hopefully save hundreds of thousands of lives was developed by a multi-national, multicultural team of scientists from several nations and cultures working together to achieve a common goal. 

Founders of the German biotech company BioNTech include husband and wife team Dr. Uğur Şahin, and Dr. Özlem Türeci, both with Turkish roots. Even though Dr. Özlem Türeci was born in Germany, she calls herself a “Prussian Turk.” Her father, a surgeon, came from Istanbul. Her 55-year-old husband Uğur Şahin was born in İskenderun, a city on the southern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. When he was four years old, he moved with his mother to join his father who was working in Germany. In 1984, he graduated as the first student of Turkish origin from Cologne’s prestigious Erich-Kästner-Gymnasium where he had taken advanced courses in math and chemistry. 

After stints in hematology and oncology at the Universities of Cologne and Saarland, and immunology at the University of Zurich, he moved to the University Center in Mainz where he became Professor of  Experimental Oncology in 2006. During his time at Saarland University Hospital, he met his future wife Özlem Türeci. The couple married in 2002. When BioNTech SE was founded in 2008, Şahin became Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Both he and his wife Özlem sit on the company’s Board of Directors. In 2016, they sold the biotech company Ganymed (Turkish expression for earned through hard work) Pharmaceuticals they had founded in 2001 to Astellas Pharma, a Japanese multinational pharmaceutical firm for over 1.3 billion dollars, which made them among Germany’s wealthiest citizens.

At BioNTech, the couple had been working on identifying and characterizing new target molecules to combat various forms of cancer tumors, hoping to develop targeted cancer vaccines. They use messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology, that harnesses the cell’s genetic make-up to prompt the body to mobilize antibodies against tumors as it would against a virus. When the coronavirus reared its ugly head in January 2020, the couple pivoted their focus from developing cancer vaccines to developing a coronavirus vaccine using the same mRNA mechanism. Early in the process, Şahin recognized the enormity of the task at hand and knew that a partnership was needed to execute the exhaustive clinical trials that a vaccine must undergo. He reached out to his friend Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer Inc., to investigate the possibility of a collaboration. Bourla, who had taken over the reins at Pfizer a year before, was receptive to Şahin’s proposal. In June 2020, Pfizer and BioNTech created a partnership. 

Fifty-nine-year old veterinarian Albert Bourla was born and raised in Thessaloniki, Greece, where he earned his doctorate in the biotechnology of reproduction at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki's Veterinary School. In his twenty-seven years at Pfizer, he has held many positions, first serving as a doctor of veterinary medicine and technical director for the company's animal health division in Greece, and later as areapresident for Anima

l Health's Europe, Africa, and Middle East Group, before moving to Pfizer’s New York Global Headquarters in 2001. He has served as President of Pfizer’s Global Vaccines, Oncology, and Consumer

Healthcare business, where he was instrumental in building a strong and competitive position in oncology and expanding the Company’s leadership in vaccine development.

Now, as CEO, he leads Pfizer in its mission: breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, with a focus on driving the scientific and commercial innovation needed to have a transformational impact on human health. He pushed for aggressive timelines in Pfizer's development of a COVID-19 vaccine. In late July 2020, late-stage trials for the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine were launched with over 40,000 enrollees. The vaccine Tozinameran (INN), code named BNT162b2, and marketed as Comirnaty, is now being manufactured and distributed by both Pfizer and BioNTech, and by Chinese Fosun Pharmaceutical. Bourla said that he authorized two billion dollars for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine development, noting that he decided against accepting funding from the US government's Operation Warp Speed because he wanted to liberate Pfizer scientists from any bureaucratic reporting and oversight on how the money would be spent.

Instrumental to the Pfizer team is Kathrin U. Jansen, Ph.D., Senior Vice President and Head of Vaccine Research and Development. German-born Dr. Jansen received her doctoral degree in microbiology, biochemistry & genetics from Phillips Universitaet, in Marburg, Germany. She continued her postdoctoral training at Cornell University where she worked on the structure and function of the acetylcholine receptor. She worked at Glaxo Institute for Molecular Biology in Geneva, Switzerland, Merck, and Wyeth before its acquisition by Pfizer in 2009. At Pfizer, she oversees a fully integrated, global vaccine research and development organization, with responsibilities ranging from discovery to registration and post-marketing commitments of first-in-class or best-in-class vaccines to prevent or treat diseases of significant unmet medical need.

In late November 2020, Pflizer reported that the BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine developed by this multi-national and multi-cultural team of scientists was more than 90 percent effective in providing immunity to the virus. The success of its lightning speed development serves as a testament to the power of a group of scientists and companies from different nations and cultures working together to achieve a common goal.

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