Dr. Ugur Sahin and his wife, Dr. Ozlem Turezi | Photo courtesy of Medimagazin
Until a few months ago, not very many people have ever heard of Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the doctors responsible for the development of a vaccine codenamed “BNT162b2” or what the whole world has now come to know as the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Just last Thursday, the Pfizer vaccine was also the first to be granted an emergency use validation by the World Health Organization, which should speed up regulatory approvals for its use and distribution in countries including the Philippines.
Both children of Turkish immigrants, Dr. Sahin and his wife Dr. Tureci are now billionaires living with their daughter in a modest apartment in the city of Mainz in Germany. As their office is near their home, the two ride bicycles going to work, and do not own a car. The low-profile couple serves as the chief executive officer and the chief medical officer of the German biotechnology company BioNTech, whose partnership with US pharma giant Pfizer resulted in what has been described as a “remarkable scientific breakthrough” that has given the world the shining light at the end of the dark tunnel in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
It all began in January last year when Dr. Sahin read an article in The Lancet about a mysterious respiratory illness that was quickly spreading in China. The article, plus subsequent research conducted by the couple, convinced them that the mysterious illness could turn into a global pandemic. As the biotech company was already working with Pfizer on a flu vaccine, both companies decided to work together to develop a vaccine, setting the wheels in motion for Project Lightspeed – so-called because the target was to accelerate the rapid development of a vaccine to fight COVID-19 – two months before the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic.
“Project Lightspeed leveraged the revolutionary messenger RNA or mRNA-based technology wherein the immune system is trained to recognize that part of the virus that causes the disease and fight it.”
Project Lightspeed leveraged the revolutionary messenger RNA or mRNA-based technology wherein the immune system is trained to recognize that part of the virus that causes the disease and fight it. (The “dream team” couple had in fact been using mRNA technology in developing a cure for cancer when they founded pharmaceutical company Ganymed which in 2016 was acquired by Japanese multinational company Astellas for $1.4 billion.)
Ironically, some members of the medical establishment even dismissed mRNA technology as “science fiction” because early experiments involving mRNA were “very underwhelming,” as Dr. Sahin himself described it. However, the couple was undeterred, continuing their research and development on biological compounds known as “monoclonal antibodies” that they discovered to be highly effective against ovarian, pancreatic and stomach cancers.
Proving their skeptics wrong, in the middle of November last year, Pfizer and BioNTech announced the results of their Phase 3 clinical trials that showed their candidate vaccine demonstrated a 95 percent efficacy against the novel coronavirus.
On Dec. 2, the United Kingdom granted an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – with the world witnessing a historic moment when a Filipina nurse administered the first fully tested and approved COVID-19 vaccine to a 90-year-old woman in the UK just days later. Soon after, countries like the US, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Singapore followed suit. The European Medicines Agency has also given its approval, paving the way for a mass vaccination program in the European Union.
“According to Dr. Sahin, the deadly coronavirus could stay with us for the next 10 years, saying that “we need a new definition of normal.” And while the emergence of a new COVID-19 strain known as the “UK variant” has caused considerable concern since it is suspected of being 70 percent more infectious,”
According to Dr. Sahin, the deadly coronavirus could stay with us for the next 10 years, saying that “we need a new definition of normal.” And while the emergence of a new COVID-19 strain known as the “UK variant” has caused considerable concern since it is suspected of being 70 percent more infectious, Dr. Sahin is confident that their vaccine can still be effective with the new virus strains and that, if needed, BioNTech is ready to provide a new enhanced vaccine “technically within six weeks.”
The two doctors will surely be given the Nobel Peace Prize – something that many people are pushing for, and understandably so. The British newspaper Financial Times has in fact chosen Dr. Sahin and Dr. Tureci as the FT People of the Year. They “epitomize scientific endeavor at its very best,” with their vaccine already starting to save lives.
2020 has really been one of the worst anyone can possibly experience, with people I personally know getting sick and dying of COVID-19. It is heartbreaking to see so many Filipinos losing their jobs – especially thousands of our overseas workers, waiting for months on end just to go home.
Now that there is a safe and effective vaccine, we can all sometimes feel impatient and frustrated in waiting to get our hands on the vaccine. But for someone like me who has been around a long time with a few heartbreaking experiences in life, I have never seen anything like what we are seeing today – with so much death and suffering that sometimes one can get very emotional, frustrated and feeling helpless – literally bringing one to tears. Indeed, “patience is a virtue” – a few more months and we will have the vaccines available.
“2020 has really been one of the worst anyone can possibly experience, with people I personally know getting sick and dying of COVID-19.”
More than ever, for those of us working on securing the vaccines and getting them into the arms of our people, we will double our efforts to acquire them as quickly as possible, working closely with Secretary Carlito Galvez.
Moderna is already on stream and Pfizer is not too far behind. With multiple other vaccine suppliers, the country will secure about 80 million doses according to Secretary Galvez.
This new year, time is inching towards our side – as the wait for these safe and effective vaccines will soon be over.