The new book “The Vaccine” recounts the desperate race to develop the world’s first authorized coronavirus shot, spearheaded by a brilliant married couple whose work has taken them to the pinnacle of scientific achievement.
Winners of the Paul Ehrlich Prize in medicine, the story of their work in creating new treatments for cancer, which led up to the creation of the first authorized mRNA-based vaccine, shows their single-mindedness and determination in the face of difficulty and sometimes even discrimination.
The man who would become the first to use the genome of the coronavirus to create the first vaccine to be used against it almost never made it to university in Germany, where he grew up.
If he had followed the trajectory laid out for him by school authorities, the son of a Turkish immigrant to the country would have found himself working in a field that would not have gained him the lofty heights which he and his wife, a fellow medical researcher, have attained.
“The Vaccine” book tells amazing story of Covid-19 vaccine
Written by Joe Miller, the Frankfurt correspondent for the Financial Times, who covered the race to develop the vaccine, the incredible story of the married scientists who founded BioNTech and created the world’s first authorized coronavirus vaccine reads like a novel.
Although few people on Earth at the time thought it was possible, by the middle of January 2020, when the seriousness of the virus was beginning to dawn on world leaders, Ugur Sahin told his wife Özlem Türeci, who had researched alongside him for decades, that a vaccine to beat the imminent scourge could not only be developed but also safely injected into people the world over — before the end of that very year.
What would have sounded like hubris at the very least to anyone else must not have come as quite as much of a surprise to his wife, who had worked at his side for almost thirty years as they boldly searched for cures and treatments for cancer.
The couple, who have one daughter, had long been researching how messenger RNA, or mRNA, could be harnessed in a bid to redirect our own immune system to fight against a range of human diseases.
Born in İskenderun, Turkey, brilliant scientist was steered away from university in Germany
Şahin was born September 19, 1965 in İskenderun, Turkey into an Alawite or Alevi family originally of Turkish nationality. The city was founded as Alexandria to commemorate Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persian Darius III at Issus (Cilicia) in 333 BC.
His father moved to Germany to work in a Ford factory there and Sahin and his mother followed when he was four; he grew up in Cologne. Initially, his primary school teacher recommended that he attend a hauptschule, which would not have readily enabled him to attend university. Thanks to the intervention of his German neighbor, however, he went to a gymnasium instead. He graduated from the Erich-Kästner-Gymnasium in Cologne-Niehl in 1984, as the first child at the school with Turkish guest worker parents.
He then studied medicine at the University of Cologne, completing a doctoral thesis there in cancer immunotherapy in 1992. He initially remained in academia, in patient care as an oncohematology physician and conducting research at university hospitals.
Şahin met his future wife, Özlem Türeci, during his work at the Saarland University Hospital in Hamburg. The couple married in 2000.
Work in the realm of cancerous tumors and immunology
He then joined Christoph Huber at the University Medical Center in Mainz. He has been working there in various leading positions in cancer research and immunology since 2001 and has been a professor for experimental oncology at the Department for Internal Medicine/Oncohematology since 2006.
Şahin sees himself as an immune engineer who tries to use the body’s antiviral mechanisms to treat cancer and other maladies when the immune system is otherwise unable to fight it. He sees his vision in guiding the immune system is to “protect us from or alleviate certain diseases.”
In 2010, he co-founded TRON (Translational Oncology at the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz). a non-profit (private) biopharmaceutical research institute that develops new diagnostic tools and drugs to treat cancer and other diseases. For his work in this field, Şahin was awarded the German Cancer Prize
From its foundation until September 2019, he was TRON’s scientific director. Since then, he has been working as a scientific advisor and supervisor of Ph.D students.
Sahin is one of the scientific directors of the new Helmholtz Institute. During the founding ceremony, Şahin declared that he believes “cancer can be defeated in the future”.
Prophetically, a project that Sahin led at the University Medical Center for developing innovative vaccines against cancer was one of twelve projects awarded a sponsorship prize by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research in 2006.
Ganymed Pharmaceuticals and the creation of BioNTech
Şahin co-founded the company Ganymed Pharmaceuticals in 2001 with his wife and his mentor Christoph Huber. Ganymed developed the monoclonal antibody Zolbetuximab, for use against esophageal and gastrointestinal cancer. In 2016, the company was sold to Astellas Pharma for over €400 million.
Together the three researchers founded the biotechnology company BioNTech, based in Mainz, in 2008; Sahin serves as its CEO. BioNTech is focused on developing and manufacturing active immunotherapies for a patient-specific approach to the treatment of cancer and other serious diseases, including of course Covid-19.
Since April 2020, BioNTech threw nearly all its resources behind researching a vaccine for COVID-19 under Şahin and Türeci, who is also a member of the company’s board of directors.
As a result of the company’s increase in value, Şahin and Türeci became the first Germans with Turkish roots among Germany’s 100 wealthiest people.
As of May 2021, Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimated his net worth at $8.35 billion.
Immigrant now worth $.35 billion as a result of groundbreaking work
Şahin has long stated that one key in the fight against COVID-19 is international cooperation and equality of distribution. He has come out against compulsory vaccination, emphasizing the voluntary nature of the vaccination.
He also is quick to urge that the efficacy and safety of a vaccine, including side effects, must always be communicated transparently. In the Fall 2020, Sahin entered into the fateful partnership with the U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer; together with the pharma giant, BioNTech obtained approval for its vaccine before the end of 2020, a staggering scientific achievement.
St. Martin’s Press says in an announcement on the book’s publishing “The Vaccine draws back the curtain on one of the most important medical breakthroughs of our age; it will reveal how Doctors Sahin and Türeci were able to develop twenty vaccine candidates within weeks, convince Big Pharma to support their ambitious project, navigate political interference and provide more than three billion doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to countries around the world in record time.”
Pivotal events throughout that extraordinary year are detailed in The Vaccine, and the scientific, economic, and personal background of each medical innovation that enabled the creation of the inoculation is explored.
St. Martin’s Press notes “Crafted to be both completely accessible to the average reader and filled with details that will fascinate seasoned microbiologists, The Vaccine explains the science behind the breakthrough, at a time when public confidence in vaccine safety and efficacy is crucial to bringing an end to this pandemic.”