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An immigrant couple's quest to cure cancer led to the invention of the Coronavirus vaccine

Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci shifted focus to finding a vaccine after learning of the dangers of the virus.

An immigrant couple's quest to cure cancer led to the invention of the Coronavirus vaccine
Image courtesy: Biontech

The Coronavirus might have been around for less than a year but the journey of the first vaccine dates back more than 30 years. Ugur Sahin, 55, and Özlem Türeci, 53, who met at the Homburg university hospital, in rural Germany, in the 1990s made it their life's aim to invent a new treatment for cancer, which eventually served as a platform for the Coronavirus vaccine. They were children of Turkish migrants and were in love. They would go on to get married and eventually create the first vaccine to be granted authorization for use. The couple founded BioNTech which partnered with Pfizer to develop the vaccine. The vaccine was granted emergency-use authorization in the UK on Wednesday and it also beat the Western record for a vaccine by more than three years, reported The Wall Street Journal. The company also reported the vaccine showed 95 percent efficacy.

Image Source: Getty Images/ Long-term care patient Carlos Alegre receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from licensed vocational nurse Virgie Vivar at Birch Patrick Skilled Nursing Facility at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center on December 21 in Chula Vista, California. 72-year-old Alegre is the first patient to receive the vaccine in San Diego County. Long-term care patients and frontline workers are among those in the CDC’s highest priority group for vaccination. (Photo by Mario Tama)



Coronavirus was first reported in December last year. However, it was after Dr. Ugur Sahin read a study on the relatively unknown disease in China that he anticipated a potential situation where large parts of the world would be engulfed by the virus. The couple immediately got to work with Dr. Sahin designing ten different templates for potential Coronavirus vaccines. One of the ten would go on to be developed as BNT162b2, the vaccine that was authorized in the UK for emergency-use. On the same day, he told Helmut Jeggle, BioNTech supervisory board chairman and manager of the Strüngmann family office, that BioNTech would have to prioritize fighting a virus that hadn't been detected in Europe and hadn't even been named. Jeggle was a little taken aback but had been working with Dr. Sahin since 2001 and knew him well. “I was surprised, to say the least,” said Jeggle. “We didn’t have much free capital, and we were tied up with our cancer research.” Dr. Sahin convinced Jeggle of the potential dangers of the new virus and gave the example of the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 that claimed almost four million lives. Jeggle agreed and BioNTech shifted their focus to creating a Coronavirus vaccine. “Ugur is the visionary who shows us the future, and Özlem then tells us how to get there,” said Helmut Jeggle.



Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci had spent years focusing on studying mRNA, genetic instructions that can help the body help itself against viruses. Their lifework was born out of frustration from the lack of options for cancer patients for whom chemotherapy wasn't working. “We realized that with standard therapy we would quickly come to a point where we didn’t have anything to offer to patients,” said Dr. Türeci. “It was a formative experience.” The pair wrote their doctoral dissertations on experimental therapies which impressed Christoph Huber, then head of the hematology and oncology department of the Johannes‐Gutenberg University in Mainz. He convinced them to join as faculty where they dove further into new treatments to fight cancer.


Image Source: Getty Images/ President-elect Joe Biden (L) receives a COVID-19 Vaccination from nurse practitioner Tabe Mase at ChristianaCare Christiana Hospital on December 21 in Newark, Delaware. (Photo by Joshua Roberts)


The couple started their first company Ganymed Pharmaceuticals GmbH, to develop an antibody treatment, in 2001. The couple got married in 2002 but it was nothing but a formality as the couple used their lunchtime break from work to get married at the registry office. Once they dotted the I's and crossed the T's, the couple returned to work the same day. They started BioNTech in 2008 to do research on mRNA. They sold Ganymed for $1.4 billion in 2016 and reinvested the amount into BioNTech. The approved vaccine has started distribution in the UK and America with President-elect Joe Biden receiving his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech novel coronavirus vaccine on Monday. Biden got his shot on live television from Delaware's ChristianaCare Hospital. The UK Government has bought 40million doses at an estimated cost of £588.4million, reported The Sun.

Disclaimer: Information about the pandemic is swiftly changing, and Upworthy is committed to providing the most recent and verified updates in our articles and reportage. However, considering the frequency in developments, some of the information/data in this article may have changed since the time of publication. Therefore, we encourage you to also regularly check online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization.

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