The most exciting piece of news in the last few days has been the apparent breakthrough in the search for a vaccine against Covid-19. It almost seems too good to be true, but it does also sound like, at the very least, we may have reached the start of the journey back to some sort of normality.
Much of the press in the UK on the so-called ‘race’ to a vaccine has been centred around revered institutions like Astra-Zeneca, Pfizer or Oxford University – and indeed one of them, Pfizer, has been instrumental in a breakthrough which would not have been possible without its expertise, its global network and its financial muscle.
However, one of the most wonderful parts of the story so far has been the focus on two rather unlikely heroes – a married couple living in Mainz near Frankfurt in Germany, who have been accredited as the true brains behind the vaccine. Dr Ugur Sahin and Dr Ozlem Tureci are immigrants from Turkey, who both came to Germany as part of a guest worker programme; he is the son of a car factory worker in a town called Iskenderun near Turkey’s Syrian boarder, and she is the daughter of a surgeon from Istanbul. They met at Saarland University in Germany, set up their first company together in 2001, and then married a year later. In 2008, they set up Biontech, the company which they currently run and which is the cradle of the latest exciting news.
The medical possibilities of this breakthrough are, of course, vast for the whole planet. But, for me, there is developing a side story which is also particularly poignant for the so-called first world countries, the wealthier sections of our global community – and that is a reminder that heroes do not necessarily conform to stereotypes. For centuries, we have been presented with Achilles-type figures, a Lord Nelson standing on the foredeck, arm severed / head bandaged, or a brooding, moody Winston Churchill refusing to give an inch. More recently, we have made virtue out of money and fame, Gates and Musk, Taylor Swift and Stormzy, Mohammed Salah and Ronaldo. This brilliant but understated couple, it appears, could not be further from that mould; and indeed if even half of the reported interview with the Times on Saturday is true, then we have the most wonderful new role models for the whole planet.
Their current company, Biontech, was set up with the aspiration to individualise cancer medicine. Indeed, if you go to their website, it is all about the determination to find a better way to treat cancer by manipulating the immune system.
There is an inserted page to direct you to their work on Covid, but it all seems to have been added in rather a hurry and rather apologetically, and not really part of their core business.
And that gives a clue as to what these two are like. It is reported that they read about Covid late in January, and thought that what they were doing with their work on cancer treatment might be useful. I let the Times take up the story – and you get a flavour for what these two are like:
Their desire to find a vaccine did not grow out of any competitive, financial or scientific impetus, but because they felt a “moral” imperative to help the world. “We have always needed to know the immune system very well. This is an expertise which makes it our duty to contribute now,” Dr Tureci explains. The team has worked in shifts night and day. “Many of us have not had vacations and have worked through the weekends, that is why we have been able to do it. We are available for different time zones too; we are in constant meetings with Pfizer in America and with our Chinese partner.”
They never contemplated defeat. “We have been in the innovation field for many years, we are habitualised not to think about the scenario that it might not work but rather to ensure that we address all potential flaws,” Dr Tureci explains. “This very sober and scientific way of doing it allows us to stay away from the pessimistic mind-wandering mode.”
There have been reports that Dr Tureci, now 53, wanted to become a nun, but she says science has always been her “high passion”, adding: “I think the most noble thing you can use science and technology for is to serve the people.”
Her husband, Dr Sahin, 55, explains that his motives are similarly altruistic. “I am driven by curiosity, I am always asking questions, I want to understand how things work,” he says. “I work in a cancer hospital, and I had to tell many patients that we can’t help them any more. As a scientist, I knew that we are not doing everything that is possible, so we need to do more. That’s what drives me on.”
“The search for the vaccine has, I admit, taken over our lives. But at the end of the day, it is also our passion. We are not important, it’s the task we are doing. We need to try everything, and if it’s not sufficient then we have to accept that…Of course, it is a huge responsibility. What drives us is the knowledge that there are kids who want to have a normal life, there’s the mother, the teacher, the old person being isolated, there is so much need.”
“But the pressure to get a quick result cannot be allowed to undermine safety. We have to tick every box so there is no cutting corners. Because we are fast, we need to be even more diligent.”
His reaction to the news that the trial had gone well was also telling: “It was an extreme relief. It just means so much.” Relief, not excitement nor any sort of desire for riches, was his response – relief. He felt that great a duty to others.
What excites him most is the thought that the technology he and his wife have developed could be adapted for future viral outbreaks. “We need to be prepared even better. We are building new manufacturing facilities, so we could be even three months faster the next time. We need an international plan.”
Dr Sahin worries that rich countries will buy up all the batches, leaving the developing world unprotected. “This was my concern from the very beginning . . . We are working on a next-generation vaccine where we might be able to further reduce the dose and thereby increase our manufacturing scale.” The wealthy should not be able to jump the queue and pay to be inoculated privately, he insists. “At this stage it must be through governments . . . I assume that in the first quarter of 2021 we would have three, maybe five, companies which can supply vaccines and by the middle of next year there might be eight or nine companies.”
Dr Tureci and Dr Sahin are not looking to profit from their discovery, though their company is now valued at £20 billion. “We do not have special needs. We don’t even have a car. A yacht would be impractical.” They occasionally go on holiday to the Canary Islands, choosing an apartment near the sea. “Half the time we have a vacation and half the time our work continues so it needs an internet connection. I always say it’s great to have a vacation doing work.” Their flat, which they share with their teenage daughter, is modest. They toast their triumphs by brewing Turkish tea.
Dr Sahin says the success of their research proves the benefits of a cosmopolitan exchange of ideas. “In our company we have people from more than 60 countries. In science it does not matter where you are from, what counts is what you can do and what you are willing to do. This is a vaccine not only by Pfizer and Biontech, it is a vaccine by mankind because every single individual has their history and education. It just shows that if you are given a chance to, everyone can contribute.”
Well, what a wonderful story. Modest, hard-working, altruistic, responsible, determined, not seeking publicity.
In a similar vein to NHS nurses, or Captain Tom, this pandemic has reminded us that heroism worn lightly is enduringly the most appealing.