Turkish-German couple Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, whose biotechnology company BioNTech in partnership with US pharma giant Pfizer developed a coronavirus vaccine in less than a year, have been selected as the “People of the Year” by the Financial Times newspaper.
“The mere fact that a safe and effective inoculation is available less than a year after the genetic sequence for a new, pneumonia-like pathogen was released puts the achievement by Dr Şahin and Dr Türeci, who are the FT’s People of the Year for 2020, alongside the greatest medical breakthroughs of our time,” said the newspaper.
The US Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11 gave emergency use authorization to the coronavirus vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, the first drug to prevent COVID-19 approved in the US. The US followed other countries, including the UK, Canada and Mexico, which have also authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for broader public use.
FT, which talked about other coronavirus vaccines, said as creators of the first vaccine to win approval by two of the world’s most credible regulators, its award has gone to Dr Şahin and Dr Türeci, describing them as “the symbol of a remarkable scientific and business success story.”
Şahin and Türeci, the children of Turkish immigrants, do not appreciate being used as a political prop — with sensationalist headlines hailing them as the ideal migration success story rather than focusing on the merits of their research, according to the FT.
Türeci said she understands that the pair “tick a couple of boxes that people are interested in.” But she agrees with Şahin, who says he would rather “talk about our science” than the pair’s background.
The BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine uses innovative messenger RNA technology to introduce the body to the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus. The vaccine has an efficacy of over 90 percent, according to early clinical trial data. The UK became the first country last week to begin vaccinating its citizens with the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.
Şahin said that “we were nervous” as the first vaccinations began in the UK. Despite having seen their jab administered to more than 22,000 people in clinical studies across six countries, he said, “It is different when people are vaccinated for the first time outside a trial, in the real world setting.”
The couple crossed the billionaire threshold back in June, as BioNTech’s stock surged after its pact with Pfizer was announced. In late November Şahin joined the list of the world’s 500 richest people after the UK approved the Pfizer vaccine; according to Bloomberg, his net worth is now $5.2 billion.