BERLIN — At 8 p.m. Sunday, the phone rang with the call Ugur Sahin, chief executive of the German medical startup BioNTech, had been anxiously awaiting.
“Are you sitting down?” Pfizer chief Albert Bourla asked him.
The news that followed was better than Sahin had hoped: Preliminary analysis from Phase 3 trials of his company’s coronavirus vaccine showed 90 percent protection.
“I was more than excited,” said Sahin, speaking to The Washington Post over video call from his home in the western German city of Mainz.
The interim results put the 55-year-old and his co-founder wife, Ozlem Tureci, in the front of the pack racing for a safe and effective vaccine. Global markets rallied, and stock soared for BioNTech — a small-by-pharma-industry-standards company that has yet to see a vaccine using its technology brought to market. For the corona-weary masses, it was a much-needed glimpse of a potential end in sight.
Sahin and Tureci celebrated with cups of Turkish tea at home. There weren’t many other options, with Germany under a new coronavirus lockdown. But it was also typical of the couple, who are intensely driven in their work yet understated in their personal lives.
The husband-and-wife team behind one of the world’s top coronavirus vaccine candidates are the sort of people who don’t own a car and who took the morning off for their wedding day in 2002 before returning to the lab. Half a day was “sufficient,” Tureci explained.
Sahin and Tureci, both children of Turkish immigrants to Germany, met while working on an oncology ward in the southwestern city of Homburg. They found they shared an interest in getting the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
Sahin was born in the Mediterranean city of Iskenderun and moved to Germany when he was 4. His father was a “Gastarbeiter,” or guest worker, at a Ford factory in Cologne.
Tureci’s family moved to Germany from Turkey before she was born, after her father finished medical school. “He schlepped me everywhere when I was young,” she said. “To the hospital and to see patients and such.”
In her studies, Tureci was surprised by the gap between advances in medical technology and what was available to doctors and patients. She and Sahin decided the best way to close that gap was to launch their own company.
Founded in 2008, BioNTech’s work focused primarily on cancer vaccines using what is known as messenger RNA technology. While traditional vaccines require labor-intensive production of viral proteins, mRNA vaccines deploy a piece of genetic code that instructs a person’s immune system to produce the proteins itself.
Sahin said he hadn’t closely followed the science of the novel coronavirus spreading in China, but Jan. 24 he received a scientific paper that rang alarm bells. It outlined both serious cases and an asymptomatic carrier. He Googled Wuhan and saw it was a well-connected mega city with an international airport.
“That’s the full pattern you need for a pandemic virus,” he said.
It took a few days to talk others at the company into putting their resources behind a coronavirus vaccine, he said, as some experts were still dismissing the potential for a pandemic as hype. “In a company, it’s a matter of convincing people that they need to install a lot of energy,” he said. Energy is something Sahin exudes as he talks excitedly about the vaccine’s prospects.
It was a “snowball effect,” Tureci said. “He was very convincing that this kind of pandemic could develop.”
Within four weeks, the first wave of the epidemic in Europe was in full swing, and BioNTech had 20 vaccine candidates as part of what it dubbed project “Lightspeed” (no connection to the U.S. government’s “Operation Warp Speed”). With a team of more than 1,000 people in Mainz working “24-7,” Sahin said, the company narrowed its most promising candidates down to four. But it didn’t have the resources to conduct large-scale clinical trials or the production and distribution that would be necessary.
BioNTech approached Pfizer, with whom they had an existing relationship, working on influenza vaccines.
“The answer came immediately and was a yes,” said Tureci. In April, Pfizer invested an initial $185 million toward the vaccine development and said it would release up to $563 million more based on milestones in the development.
When the interim Phase 3 results came in, Tureci said they took her by surprise. “As a scientist, I’m very cautious and tend to be a bit pessimistic,” she said.
Sahin said the news was “extremely relieving.”
The United States had already ordered 100 million doses, with an option for 500 million more. The European Union on Wednesday agreed on an order for an initial 200 million.
Amid the whirlwind of publicity, tweets from President Donald Trump have brought some bemusement. “Complete nonsense” is how Sahin describes the accusation that the companies sat on the results until after the election.
And as for Trump’s claims of credit: “I’m not sure where the U.S. government would have had input in this,” Tureci said.
Other world leaders have sent messages of cautious hope. No mRNA vaccine has received regulatory approval before, though scientists in the United States, Britain and China, as well as with one other German company, are pursuing similar vaccines for the coronavirus.
While the results are “encouraging,” they are only preliminary, German health officials said in a news conference Monday.
“This is a new virus and a completely new situation for mankind,” said Sahin. “That provides an opportunity to prove that the technology works and works faster than existing technologies.”
“Manufacturing will be a challenge,” he said. “It is such a huge amount of doses. It’s far from being easy.” He said it will be tight to get any distribution this year, with regulatory approval — if all goes to plan — not expected until mid-December.
Sahin and Tureci now number among the 100 richest Germans. Sahin said he can’t avoid watching the stock price go up — “but it doesn’t really matter that much.” He’s more concerned about getting his first product to the market.
“I don’t have a car. I’m not going to buy a plane,” said Sahin, who cycles to work every day. “What’s life-changing is to be able to impact something in the medical field.”