BERLIN —At 8 p.m. Sunday evening, the phone rang with the call Ugur Sahin, chief executive of the German medical start-up 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 on a 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.
[Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is more than 90 percent effective in first analysis, company reports]
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.