BioNTech: little-known German company behind the Covid-19 vaccine

Photo: Courtesy Federico Gambarini/dpa

One of the first vaccines against Covid-19 was jointly developed by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and a small German company, BioNTech.

While many refer to the jab as the “Pfizer vaccine,” BioNTech’s contribution was far from marginal.

In fact, the candidates for the vaccine were developed by BioNTech, a small company based in the small south-western city of Mainz, in Germany.

Founders Oezlem Tuereci and Ugur Sahin are among the few scientists worldwide who were working towards the creation of an mRNA-based jab when the pandemic struck.

By teaming up with Pfizer, BioNTech was then able to launch one of the first and most effective coronavirus vaccines in less than a year.

Back in 2014, BioNTech did not even have its own website, according to British journalist Joe Miller.

Miller followed the development of the shot and describes the process in a book published in Germany in September.

It tells of BioNTech’s founders and how they pursued their visions with great tenacity and commitment.

The company, founded by oncologist Sahin together with his wife Tuereci, originally specialized in individualized immune therapy for cancer patients.

Sahin has likened the rise of BioNTech, which has 1,300 employees, to that of Tesla – though the modest, factual scientist seems worlds apart from the flashy demeanour of Tesla-founder Elon Musk.

The two BioNTech founders are specialists in human medicine. Sahin, 56, who heads up the firm, was born in Turkey and moved to Germany with his parents, where he studied medicine and maths in Cologne. Tuereci, 54, who leads the medical division, was born in Germany and completed her studies in Homburg.

An expert in his field of medical science, Sahin worked as a doctor in Cologne and Hamburg, before settling at the Saarland University Hospital in Western Germany, where between 1992 and 2000 he worked as a doctor and researcher in internal medicine before specializing in molecular medicine and immunology.

He had always been passionate about fighting cancer and originally founded BioNTech in 2008 to search for a new cancer treatment.

In researching “The Vaccine,” Miller met Tuereci and Sahin and talked to more than 50 scientists, politicians and BioNTech employees.

His account shows how Tuereci, Sahin and their small company were able to launch a highly effective vaccine within a very short space of time.

Long before the coronavirus was first detected, the couple had believed in the possibility of a medical revolution based on the genetic molecule mRNA.

They had not dreamed that a pandemic might prove them right.

Messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines consist of genetic instructions to cells to make just a fragment of the virus against which the body is to be protected.

The approach was not widely known when the pandemic hit, generating little enthusiasm among the larger scientific community, according to Miller.

Sahin was one of the few people who had an inkling of what was to come when the first Covid cases were detected in China in December 2019. “I think we can develop something,” he said early on.

On January 24, 2020, there were fewer than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide.

On January 25, Tuereci and Sahin decided to develop a vaccine against the new virus.

The following day, Sahin had already conceived the first eight vaccine candidates and outlined the engineering design plans for them. They dubbed their efforts to develop the mRNA technology “Project Lightspeed,” which later became the German title of Miller’s book.

Up until then, an mRNA-based drug had never been authorized for use.

Nor was that the only problem. The team had to overcome a slew of obstacles, setbacks and problems before the jab was finally launched.

One milestone came when Sahin and Tuereci received the stand-out results from the decisive clinical trials.

On November 9, 2020, they shared the news with the world, causing the small company’s stocks to skyrocket. Suddenly, BioNTech was as valuable as Bayer, a 157-year-old German pharma giant.

Miller, a Financial Times journalist, says he had expected to find a watershed moment that made the BioNTech fairytale possible but in fact, many efforts contributed to the Covid-19 vaccine – along with a large portion of luck.

If there’s a secret behind the the company’s success story, it’s the founders’ personalities, their sheer willpower, according to Miller.

It was not the mRNA technology, but Tuereci and Sahin themselves who were the key agent in the vaccine, he says.


Text by Annett Stein, and photo: Courtesy © dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH