BioNTech Founders Türeci and Şahin on the Battle against COVID-19
In a DER SPIEGEL interview, BioNTech founders Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin discuss the development of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, what that success means to them and where they intend to go from here.
Interview Conducted by Steffen Klusmann und Thomas Schulz
04.01.2021, 22.28 Uhr
Rapid climbs to stardom are normally reserved for pop stars and, on rare occasions, for politicians. But it is virtually unheard of for scientists. On Nov. 9, 2020, though, Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin were catapulted onto the world stage essentially overnight. That’s the day, BioNTech, the medical research company the couple founded, reported the first global breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic: The company’s vaccine candidate BNT162b2, developed in Mainz, Germany, demonstrated more than 90 percent efficacy in clinical studies. Almost every test subject who received the vaccine was protected from contracting COVID-19.
It was a sensation. And a glimmer of hope. In 2021, fully 1.3 billion doses of the vaccine are to be administered worldwide, making an end to the pandemic more than just a distant hope. Şahin and Türeci have been the focus of global attention since then, with press outlets around the world showing a soft spot for the German couple with Turkish roots. She, a chief physician; he, the CEO of BioNTech – married for the last 18 years. Thus far, Şahin has taken the lead in conducting interviews, but this is the first, extensive joint interview given by the couple. It was conducted via Zoom from their Mainz apartment. The two seemed so relaxed that it was easy to forget all that was going on around them.
The BioNTech couple has been well known in the medical community for some time, particularly among cancer experts. They are both oncologists specialized in immunotherapy. Şahin, 55, was awarded the German Cancer Prize in 2019. Türeci, 53, is head of the research cluster of the German Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.
BioNTech is the second company the couple has founded, but they primarily see themselves as scientific researchers. They view entrepreneurship as a means to an end: Because “science doesn’t always reach the hospital bed,” as Türeci says – because research doesn’t always produce concrete treatments, or does so only slowly. As such, the record speed with which their company developed the COVID-19 vaccine is a message: Look how fast we can move if we all join forces.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Türeci, Mr. Şahin, as we speak, millions of doses of the vaccine you developed are being shipped on planes and trucks to hospitals and vaccination centers around the world. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden was inoculated live on television with the BioNTech vaccine. Your research is currently the greatest hope for billions of people. Have you been able to find a minute to reflect on all of that?
Türeci: If you are speaking literally about a single minute, then yes. The entire year was more or less unrelenting. But every now and then, we have had brief moments to reflect and absorb events, such as when colleagues sent us photos from the first vaccinations. To see people finally benefitting from our work is really moving.
DER SPIEGEL: The vaccine achieved an efficacy of 95 percent in the clinical study. Most experts would have been happy with a result exceeding 70 percent. Were you confident from the beginning that your vaccine would be so potent?
Şahin: We were confident that the immunological reaction would be close to perfect. We started with 20 vaccine candidates, which we tested until only the best remained. It helped that we have over two decades of experience in immune engineering, triggering immune responses in the body. But we didn’t know if the virus was at all susceptible to a vaccine.
A vial of the BioNTech vaccine
A vial of the BioNTech vaccine Foto: Ints Kalnins / REUTERS
DER SPIEGEL: We could have found ourselves in a situation in which no vaccine could help?
Şahin: Yes, there are other viruses in this class against which it has not been possible to develop a vaccine. But we are able to produce an immune response to this coronavirus. That isn’t just shown by the 95 percent efficacy, but also by the breadth and strength of the antibody and T-cell response. This multifaceted nature of the immunological response is vital when the virus mutates further. Think of it like this: The triggered immune response recognizes the so-called virus antigens at many different locations. Through a mutation, the virus can make some of these locations unrecognizable, but it can’t change itself so fundamentally that it becomes invisible to the immune system.
DER SPIEGEL: That means that you aren’t worried about the much more contagious variant discovered in England?
Şahin: Not when it comes to the efficacy of the vaccine. Even if there are several mutations, the actual structure of the virus antigen is changed by less than 1 percent. We are performing tests to determine if our vaccine can also neutralize theses variations and will soon know more. What concerns me is that the mutation apparently arose in a patient with a suppressed immune system. The virus had complete freedom and months of time to optimize. That could mean that there will always be biotopes within which the virus can improve itself. We have to consider this problem in the medium term.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you be able to rapidly adapt your vaccine if the virus undergoes a significant mutation?
DER SPIEGEL 01/2021
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 01/2021 (December 31, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
Türeci: From a purely technological perspective, yes. We could simply replace the genetic information for the current virus antigen with the new, mutated version. Doing so would go quite quickly, it would take perhaps six weeks. The question is what the regulatory authorities would say. Would they accept that we fundamentally proved the efficacy and safety of our vaccine initially such that we could then use it against additional virus mutations?
DER SPIEGEL: And what if they don’t?
Türeci: Then we would have to undertake a new clinical study with tens of thousands of test subjects. But the authorities have significant experience with such adjustments, such as with the seasonal flu vaccine, for example, which is produced each year to neutralize new virus variations.
Şahin: We have begun discussing the issue with the authorities.
DER SPIEGEL: Your study with 44,000 test subjects showed that the vaccine can prevent the development of COVID-19. But when will we know if it also prevents the transmission of the virus? That would stem the pandemic much more rapidly.
Türeci: We will have relevant data by around the end of January – indirect data, at least. What we are able to investigate pretty well is the prevention of asymptomatic infections.
DER SPIEGEL: In other words, whether people are infectious even if they have no symptoms.
Türeci: We can determine that indirectly via antibody tests. The data we have gathered thus far is encouraging, indicating that the vaccine can be effective here too.
DER SPIEGEL: Just as effective as it is against the outbreak of the illness?
Şahin: We’ll see if it is 50, 60 or 70 percent. But you shouldn’t forget that simply preventing an outbreak of the illness has an effect on the further development of the pandemic, because people who develop symptoms through an outbreak of the illness are contagious for longer.
DER SPIEGEL: It also hasn’t yet been determined for how long immunity lasts, whether after an infection or after receiving the vaccine. In a worst-case scenario, will we have to get vaccinated three times a year?
Türeci: First of all, we expect the immunity from the vaccine to last at least as long as natural immunity triggered by an infection. And we know that we increase the body’s immune response with the second dose. That means that an even greater effect could be achieved with a third injection, perhaps one year later. Ultimately, this is all hardcore science. The data will show us what must be done.
DER SPIEGEL: Thus far, the vaccine has to be kept at a temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius during storage and transportation. It became apparent from the very beginning of the vaccination campaign that this can create problems. Will it be possible to adjust the serum in the near future such that it can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures?
Türeci: The situation will remain unchanged for the next three months, but then we will likely be able to improve the specifications for transportation and storage. Our refined vaccine generation, which will be stable at much higher temperatures, could be available by late summer.
DER SPIEGEL: The best vaccine isn’t particularly helpful if it isn’t available in sufficient quantities. How many doses will you be able to deliver to Europe in the first half of the year?
Şahin: The precise numbers aren’t intended for publication. We ask for your understanding.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla: “Uğur is a very, very unique individual. He cares only about science.”
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla: “Uğur is a very, very unique individual. He cares only about science.” Foto: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. appears to be much better supplied. According to President-elect Joe Biden, up to 100 million Americans are to be vaccinated by April.
Şahin: The Americans didn’t just buy our vaccine, but also those from other companies, like Moderna.
DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. reserved 600 million doses from BioNTech way back in July. The EU only placed its order in November – and only for 300 million doses. You apparently offered more. Why didn’t Brussels accept your offer?
Şahin: Unfortunately, I am unable to give you any details from the contracts. But the process in Europe certainly didn’t proceed as quickly and straightforwardly as with other countries. In part because the European Union isn’t directly authorized, and member states also have a say. That can result in a loss of time in a negotiation situation where a strong message is needed.
DER SPIEGEL: At the same time, Brussels made large purchases from other producers who are behind on development. The French company Sanofi, for example, whose vaccine will only be ready at the end of 2021 at the earliest.
Şahin: There was an assumption that many other companies would produce vaccines. There was apparently an attitude of: We’ll get enough, it won’t be that bad, we have everything under control. That surprised me.
“At some point, it became clear that many of those producers wouldn’t be able to deliver in a timely manner.”
Türeci: There were, in fact, a number of companies that announced their intention to develop a vaccine. Many countries and the EU came up with the idea of putting together a basket from a variety of producers. The approach is certainly a sensible one. But at some point, it became clear that many of those producers wouldn’t be able to deliver in a timely manner. And by then, it was too late to place large orders elsewhere.
DER SPIEGEL: The vaccine produced by the U.S. company Moderna is also based on mRNA technology and has demonstrated an efficacy of 95 percent. The only other vaccine candidate for which we have sufficient data is from the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and was produced using the vector technique. It has shown an efficacy of around 70 percent. Are other vaccine technologies not up to the task of defeating COVID-19?
Şahin: It’s too early to draw such a conclusion. The method was successful against the Ebola virus. SARS-CoV-2 is more difficult to deactivate.
DER SPIEGEL: Either way, for the time being it looks as though we have far less of the vaccine than we had hoped.
Şahin: The current situation doesn’t look particularly rosy. There is a gap because there is a lack of additional, approved vaccines and we have to fill this gap with our vaccine. That is why we are currently working with Pfizer on whether and how we can increase production.
DER SPIEGEL: Can you increase capacity such that you will be able to replace several missing vaccine candidates by summer?
Şahin: We are currently trying to find new cooperation partners who will be able to produce the vaccine for us. But it’s not as if there are unused, specialized factories sitting around the world that can start producing the vaccine tomorrow in the quality necessary. By the end of January, we will have clarity on whether and how much more we will be able to produce.
DER SPIEGEL: Your partner Pfizer is the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. One might think that they could just flip the switch and produce as much vaccine as is needed.
Türeci: That is exactly what happened. Only thanks to their gigantic machinery, in addition to our own production facilities, will we be able to supply almost 50 countries with far more than a billion doses of this vaccine, which was only just approved. It remains a huge undertaking.
DER SPIEGEL: Some politicians are now demanding that you simply license your vaccine to other producers so that more of it can be manufactured faster. Production facilities could then be converted to make vaccine instead of aspirin, for example.
Şahin: The production of mRNA vaccines in medicinal quality is anything but trivial. You can’t just shift gears and start producing vaccine instead of aspirin or cough medicine. The process requires years of expertise and the appropriate structural and technological configuration. We developed these competencies over a period of 10 years. And we expanded our production capacities concurrently with the clinical development of the vaccine so that we could produce more than a billion doses.
“The production of mRNA vaccines in medicinal quality is anything but trivial.”
Türeci: From the very beginning, we started looking for solutions to increase production capacity and to develop a robust network of suppliers. We have already established partnerships with five European producers to support production. We are also in talks with companies that are specialized in the production of vaccine components in compliance with all pharmaceutical regulations. Additional contracts are under negotiation.
DER SPIEGEL: BioNTech is a German company and received 375 billion euros in funding from the German government. It’s not surprising that many people are expecting that Germany will receive a special allocation of the vaccine.
Şahin: Germany will receive a sufficient quantity of the vaccine. From the very beginning, we have been saying that we see ourselves as a global company and will make our vaccine available worldwide. It has now been approved for use in 50 countries and we must and want to deliver. If 500,000 cans are destined for a developing country, then they have to actually get there. It is important that the elderly and medical workers can be vaccinated in as many countries as possible. I think that we will be able to cover the most vulnerable groups in Germany in the coming months, particularly the elderly.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it also possible that we’ll end up with a vaccine shortage if a lack of raw materials develops or if a batch is flawed?
Şahin: Yes, both are possibilities. And there is also a risk of personnel shortages should there be a COVID-19 outbreak in our facilities. But we are doing all we can to produce more, particularly in Germany. Our new production site in Marburg might already be finished in February – much earlier than planned – and could produce up to 250 million doses in the first half of the year.
DER SPIEGEL: A discussion in Germany has already developed regarding possible privileges for those who have received the vaccine – when it comes to traveling, for example, or going to restaurants and events. Or whether such kinds of “discrimination” should be forbidden. What is your position on that debate?
Türeci: In the coming months, caution and prudence will be necessary to reduce infection numbers and to prevent yet another surge. The focus should be on finding solutions that strengthen the economy without putting people in danger. That won’t be easy. Political leaders will have to find a strategy. I can understand both sides.
You won’t find classic factory floors at the Mainz headquarters of BioNTech. In sterile, white laboratories, robots are rapidly examining T-cells and blood samples as gene sequencers are using algorithms to analyze complex genetic sequences. BioNTech is more of a high-tech firm than it is a classical pharmaceutical company.
Usually, a somewhat battered mountain bike can be found in the bike rack at the entrance. It belongs to Şahin. The couple doesn’t own a car.
Şahin’s office is big, but simple. It is more of a workroom than it is an executive suite with an antechamber. Usually, the office’s occupant can be found in jeans and a shirt. Türeci, meanwhile, is bustling through the laboratories in a white doctor’s smock. The hundreds of scientists who work in the eight-story building have thus far primarily focused their attention on research. Around 20 potential medications are currently under development, most of them cancer treatments. Aside from the vaccine, none of them has yet been approved.
“That’s just part of the deal when you are trying to bring something brand new from the laboratory to the patient.”
One reason for that is that Türeci and Şahin are pioneers in a new, untested medical technology, one which seeks to transform the human body into its own drug factory. BioNTech focuses its efforts on mRNA, a molecule that is an important component in human biology. It serves as a messenger, carrying construction blueprints from a cell’s genetic material to its protein factories. If you can control mRNA, you can theoretically program cells to do all kinds of things, including attack a tumor. Or to trigger the immune system to produce antibodies against a virus.
Many experts believe that the BioNTech vaccine has opened the door to a new disruptive technology – a new class of medications that could revolutionize the medical profession in the next two decades.
DER SPIEGEL: Your background is in academic research, but now you are negotiating things like logistics, purchasing and supply chains. Does it annoy you because it keeps you from your research?
Türeci: Yes, it is sometimes bothersome, but that’s just part of the deal when you are trying to bring something brand new from the laboratory to the patient. You have to be humble and take care of all those things that you always thought other people should handle. Plus, you learn to see things like production, storage, cooling and transportation as an extension of scientific innovation. Here, too, new solutions are required for problems that have never been encountered before.
DER SPIEGEL: What percentage of you is still a researcher and what percentage of you is entrepreneur?
Şahin: One-hundred percent researcher and 70 percent entrepreneur.
Türeci: (laughs) Looks like we’ll need a new kind of mathematics.
The University of Mainz library: “We have also built up our own school of thought.”
The University of Mainz library: “We have also built up our own school of thought.” Foto: Michael Schick / imago images
DER SPIEGEL: In contrast to the United States, it is still unusual in Germany for academic researchers to start companies. What motivated you to do so?
Türeci: Otherwise, many things wouldn’t reach the patient’s bedside.
Şahin: That’s the key point. Our definition of “getting to the patient” is not doing a clinical trial and then saying: Now I’ve treated 20 people and generated data. We want to continue with our innovation …
Türeci: … until it becomes the new standard.
DER SPIEGEL: Why did you choose mRNA as your field of research? Until recently, it was completely uncharted territory.
Türeci: It wasn’t really a direct path.
Şahin: We wanted to develop immunotherapies for treating cancer. We realized early on that each cancer is unique and should ideally be treated individually. In our search for technologies to make that vision a reality, we came across mRNA. We invested in two decades of research to make what was then an embryonic technology became usable as a drug platform.
DER SPIEGEL: The vaccine is the first proof that the technology works. Will this speed up the development of the 20 or so other drugs you are working on?
Şahin: That depends on many factors.
Türeci: Like whether and how what has now been learned about the pandemic vaccine can be applied to other drugs and diseases. As we have just seen, drug development can take place very quickly.
DER SPIEGEL: Are the authorities ultimately more of a limiting factor than the number of researchers you have working for BioNTech?
Şahin: No, I wouldn’t put it that way. But when we submit a study dossier for a clinical trial, it takes up to three months in Germany to get a response. For our COVID-19 vaccine, it only took three days. Hence the question: How can we speed things up for cancer drugs as well?
DER SPIEGEL: Is the European regulatory agency EMA too slow for you?
Şahin: Compared to single-country authorities, Europe is simply not quite as streamlined. This is due to the fragmentation into individual nations. But it isn’t just an issue for Europe. I think we need a fundamental discussion about how to modernize decades-old drug development routines so they don’t become a bottleneck for medical innovation.
DER SPIEGEL: Well-established processes and routines also have advantages.
Şahin: Right, but that’s not the point. Biotechnology is no longer a vague promise. I firmly believe that in the next 20 years, we will see a medical revolution in many areas. There will be a lot of candidates for new drugs, largely because the U.S. and China have invested heavily in biotechnology. And we have to consider how we can create structures in Europe to be competitive in that arena.
“To see people finally benefitting from our work is really moving.”
The stress and pressure of the past months has been immense. Şahin and Türeci, however, seem to be unaffected. The two remain calm and focused. It’s a striking contrast to the world of top executives and captains of business, where it’s often volume and pithy words that count. Maybe it’s their decades of training as scientists or even just their nature.
Türeci grew up in the 1970s in Lastrup, a small municipality in the state of Lower Saxony. Her father, who immigrated to Germany from Istanbul, worked there as a surgeon in the small Catholic St.-Elisabeth-Stift hospital and also ran his own practice. The family lived across the street from the hospital, and Türeci often accompanied her father to work.
Şahin came to Cologne from Turkey with his mother when he was four years old. His father worked at the Ford plant in the city. In 1984, he graduated from the Erich-Kästner-Gymnasium in Cologne, the first child of Turkish immigrant workers to attend the college-prep high school. And the first to be top of his class.
Şahin studied medicine and worked as a doctor for internal medicine and hematology/oncology – first at the University Hospital in Cologne and later at Saarland University Hospital in Homburg. He met Türeci during his final year as a medical student. Both got their doctorates with dissertations on cancer and the immune system.
Both went to Mainz in the mid-1990s where, at the university, they met their now-retired mentor, the oncologist Christoph Huber. They quickly noticed that Germany’s world-class science is too rarely represented in the medical field. “Sometimes it seems like a Bermuda Triangle in which innovation disappears without a trace,” Şahin says.
In 2001, the couple founded their first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, where they worked on the development of a new treatment for stomach and esophageal cancer. Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas would later acquire the company for at least a half a billion euros.
In 2008, they founded BioNTech, with financing from Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann, the founders of the German generic drug company Hexal. The brothers earned billions when they sold their firm.
Despite owning their own company, Şahin and Türeci remained true to their roots in scientific-academic research. The couple lives together with their daughter in an inconspicuous apartment located between company headquarters and the university.
A former colleague describes them both as brilliant workhorses. Türeci once described herself as being a “Prussian Turk.” Still, the couple gets annoyed these days with the frequently told anecdote that they still went in to the lab on the day of their wedding in 2002 to continue working. Not because it isn’t true – but because it’s too personal for them, it distracts from their work. “Uğur is a very, very unique individual,” says Albert Bourla, chief executive of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. “He is a scientist and a man of principles. I trust him 100 percent.”
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Şahin, you have been teaching experimental oncology at the University of Mainz for many years. Will you continue with your students despite your responsibilities at the company?
Şahin: Yes, we both supervised doctoral students who now work in key positions in the company. We don’t just build technological talent, we have also built up our own school of thought on how to approach problems in the pharmaceutical environment, which is highly regulated. In doing so, we try to combine the best of basic research and industrial development.
Türeci: In contrast to the U.S., this type of training, this sort of scene, doesn’t exist here. We both see it as our job to train such experts. Our doctoral programs revolve around just that.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Türeci, you also head the German Federal Research Ministry’s research excellence cluster for individualized immune intervention and are on the board of the European Association for Cancer Immunotherapy CIMT. That sounds like a 100-hour work week. Does your work follow you home?
Türeci: Yes, you could say that. And that’s totally in line with our way of life. Our work doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. – we immerse ourselves in it. It is very important to have a core of partners and colleagues who work with you as a team to accomplish all of these tasks.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you ever take any vacation?
Şahin: (laughs) Oh yeah, don’t worry about that. We’re doing fine.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Türeci, your father was a doctor. Did you always know you wanted to become a doctor?
Türeci: That was clear to me early on. My father was a surgeon and had a practice, he was constantly surrounded by patients, and that inspired me to want to heal people.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Şahin, what about you?
Şahin: I also always wanted to become a doctor and a researcher. I was fascinated by immunology. I was an early believer in the idea that our immune system should be able to fight cancer. Even as a kid, I couldn’t wrap the idea around my head that people with cancer looked healthy but were terminally ill. And that it was just allowed to happen.
The first couple of research Türeci and Şahin: “We’re doing well.”
The first couple of research Türeci and Şahin: “We’re doing well.” Foto: Ramon Haindl / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: In addition to your practical training as a doctor in the hospital, you also studied mathematics. Medicine alone wasn’t enough for you?
Şahin: It was because of my curiosity. I wanted to understand things, down to the purest and smallest detail. And there is no more beautiful science for that than mathematics.
DER SPIEGEL: You both seem to be obsessed in the most positive sense of the word. The material things in life obviously make little impression on you. And now this sudden fame. Is it also a burden?
Türeci: We’re dealing with it well because we never attached much importance to it anyway. We don’t sit in front of the computer all day googling ourselves. It’s possible to escape that even in the digital age.
DER SPIEGEL: In that sense, Mainz is a good place to be located.
Türeci: We like Mainz very much, this down-to-earthness, not so much excitement.
DER SPIEGEL: Except during carnival.
Şahin: That’s something I’d rather not comment on.
DER SPIEGEL: One discussion that is harder for you to avoid is the one about your Turkish roots. Some are hailing you as role models for immigrants. Others say such aspects of identity shouldn’t play any role. How do you feel about it?
Şahin: We employ people from more than 60 countries in our company. Having an immigration background is totally normal for us. It doesn’t matter at all. On the other hand, I understand that our success is inspirational for people, especially Turks. In that respect, we have a certain responsibility to deal with it sensibly and to reveal a little more about ourselves to people than we normally would.
Türeci: Identity is nothing negative, it’s only the politicization of identity that is harmful. We want to avoid that at all costs.
“Our work doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. – we immerse ourselves in it.”
DER SPIEGEL: Mixing work and private life is generally considered to be rather difficult. How do you manage that as a couple? Who decides if you both have a completely different opinion on an important issue in the company?
Şahin: We discuss it objectively. And I if I’m wrong, I admit it, even though I am technically the boss.
Türeci: It’s the same the other way around.
DER SPIEGEL: Thanks to the sharp rise in BioNTech’s market value, you now rank pretty high up in manager magazin’s list of the richest people in Germany. In the U.S., that would be seen as an ultimate sign of success. But in Germany, many people are uncomfortable with these kinds of rankings. Are you as well?
Şahin: I find such lists useless, especially since it’s only a book value to begin with. Nor do I get anxiety attacks when the stock market value drops by several hundred million.
DER SPIEGEL: Progress in medicine and biotechnology in recent decades has been immense. And yet few other industries have been spurned to such a degree by German banks and financiers and so neglected by politicians. Why?
Türeci: We have a certain reluctance to innovate and take risks in this country. The Germans focus more on perfection, the finale.
Şahin: If someone presents a newly developed car in this country and the hubcap is missing, everyone just complains about the hubcap and no one talks about the invention. In the U.S., it’s enough to just present the hubcap and everyone congratulates you for your prospective innovative vehicle. The idea that a start-up can create something that large, established companies can’t, is unfortunately too often lacking in our country.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you felt this?
Türeci: Yes, up until three years ago, we were still being asked why a company from Mainz, of all places, should succeed in doing something big when there are already so many promising biotech companies in Boston.
Şahin: In addition, unlike the IT industry, investments in biotechnology don’t pay off after three to four years, but only after 10 to 15 years.
DER SPIEGEL: Even German Internet pioneers like the Samwer brothers are now increasingly investing in real estate.
Şahin: Unfortunately, we lack the necessary venture capital landscape.
Türeci: There’s another problem in our industry. Investors not only have to be patient until an investment pays off – they also have to put up a lot of money right at the beginning. In most cases, more than a billion U.S. dollars are needed to bring a new drug to market. That’s a deterrent.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you hopeful that the success you are having can help change that?
Şahin: I do believe that we could have an inspirational effect. We have a lot of talent in Germany. Many of our colleagues in biotechnology are pleased about our success because it is a benefit for the entire industry and will lead to new investments. We’re happy to see capital come from a variety of sources as it does in the U.S., where there are venture capitalists and private investors, but also government agencies like DARPA …
DER SPIEGEL: … the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which provides funding for research projects when they serve national security …
“I see a realistic chance that we will succeed in fundamentally changing how cancer is treated.”
Şahin: … and can quickly provide a hundred million dollars in startup funding, which is ultimately nothing more than a kind of subsidy. We could really use that in Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: But it’s also typically German that startups find it very difficult marketing their products around the world. How do you plan to become a global pharmaceutical company?
Türeci: That depends on what you define as a global pharmaceutical company. When we were founded, we set out to ensure that our innovations would benefit everyone around the world. To do so, we need international production facilities, subsidiaries and networks. We have initiated such a network for the vaccine. We have brought Pfizer on board as a global partner and we are expanding internationally ourselves. Our cancer drugs could also be produced and distributed this way in the future.
Şahin: At the moment, we are mainly working in two areas: infectious diseases and cancer research. But we also want to develop beyond these core areas. In the medium term, we see ourselves as an immunotherapy company. We will be addressing inflammation, autoimmune diseases and regenerative therapies. There will surely be some product candidates in those areas in the next year or two.
DER SPIEGEL: The question is whether you can do it on your own or whether one of the pharmaceutical giants will acquire you first?
Şahin: We have the opportunity and the ambition to do it on our own. If we successfully market the COVID-19 vaccine, we will generate financial resources that we will reinvest. What we are working on now is a strategy that defines where we enter into partnerships and what we can handle on our own, also through acquisitions. In May 2020, we acquired a competitor in Cambridge in the U.S. with just under a hundred employees and an excellent research team on site there. I could imagine more acquisitions of that nature in the future, provided they fit into our corporate culture.
DER SPIEGEL: How many times has the head of Pfizer try to buy BioNTech?
Şahin: Not even once. He knows exactly where we want to go. We made it very clear at the beginning of the partnership that this would be our first product and that we were not simply looking for a licensing deal, but a true collaboration.
Türeci: Many of our partnerships in cancer products are also designed to be on level footing and not as some gateway drug for acquisition. We have always sent the message out to the market that we want to remain independent.
DER SPIEGEL: To whom are you most grateful for your current success?
Şahin: Our two anchor shareholders Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann, who had incredible faith in 2007 in our idea, and that’s all it was at the time. We had brought along a three-page paper summarizing the business plan.
Türeci: And our mentor at the university, Christoph Huber. The path to launching this company while still remaining anchored in the university was a rocky one. He was part of this dream and helped create the necessary conditions.
DER SPIEGEL: Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla also seems to have believed in you.
Şahin: Yes, he has made it amazingly clear that he supports the project no matter what it costs. You have to have the courage to do so as head of a global corporation.
DER SPIEGEL: BioNTech’s origins are actually in cancer research. You first attracted attention three years ago with a successful study on a vaccine against cancer. When will the first drug of that type be approved?
Türeci: We have several products in the pipeline, and major efficacy studies for some of them are approaching. In other words: We believe it could be 2023/24.
DER SPIEGEL: Progress has accelerated particularly rapidly recently in the area of oncology. Some experts are hopeful that, at this rate, many forms of cancer will be readily treatable by the end of the decade. Are you as optimistic?
Şahin: We are on the path to detecting and treating cancer earlier. This could be a real revolution. What is still missing are curative procedures for early-stage patients. Thirty to 40 percent develop metastases again at some point after surgery. This is an area in which we will be particularly active with BioNTech. And I see a realistic chance that we will succeed in fundamentally changing how cancer is treated.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Türeci, Mr. Şahin, thank you for this interview.