Scientists Without Borders

How Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine breakthrough was achieved together with a previously obscure Mainz-based firm, BioNTech, which is now worth over a billion euros

 February, 2021

In November 2020, in the midst of rising coronavirus cases across Europe and Germany’s second lockdown, there was a ray of light: the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, in collaboration with German biotech firm BioNTech, announced preliminary test results for a vaccine that was 95 percent effective.

“Today is a great day for science and humanity,” Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement at the time. He also paid tribute to his German partner.

BioNTech is a billion-dollar husband-and-wife team consisting of CEO Uğur Şahin and his spouse and chief medical officer Özlem Türeci, both highly accomplished scientists and experts in immunology and immunotherapy. Şahin was born in Turkey and studied medicine at the University of Cologne before meeting Türeci at the Saarland University Medical Center. Their company usually specializes in cancer research, developing ways to harness the body’s natural ability to defend itself from bacteria and viruses.

Özlem Türeci is a Turkish-German physician and immunologist who teaches at the University of Mainz. Together with her husband Uğur Şahin, she founded two companies in the field of biotechnology, including BioNTech.

© Marzena Skubatz/laif

Pfizer and BioNTech announced in March – when the pandemic was still in its infancy – that they were pooling their resources to accelerate their vaccine development program called Project Lightspeed. It was a logical step, since the two companies had already been working together on the research and development of mRNA flu vaccines since 2018.

Lightspeed turned out to be an appropriate name. BioNTech was able to bring its first vaccine candidates to clinical development within less than three months. “Safety, speed and flexibility are of the utmost importance in reacting to the current pandemic,” the company said in a statement.

The two companies began manufacturing tens of millions of doses at the end of 2020 and expect to produce more than 1.3 billion by the end of 2021. In part, this is thanks to the financial support of the German government, which in September invested EUR 375 million into BioNTech from its special coronavirus research fund.

For Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer and president of Worldwide Research, Development & Medical, the cooperation between the two companies has provided an ideal platform for the development of the vaccine. “We’re happy that the successful relationship between Pfizer and BioNTech made it possible for both companies to mobilize our resources in the face of this global challenge,” he said.