BioNTech: The German company behind the potential first COVID-19 vaccine

Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of German biotech firm BioNTech, is interviewed by journalists in Marburg, Germany September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer
Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of German biotech firm BioNTech. Photo: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

The hopes of the world were pinned on a young German biotech company this week, when BioNTech (BNTX), and its US partner Pfizer (PFE) announced that its COVID-19 vaccine candidate had shown 90% effectiveness in a Phase 3 trial based on preliminary data.

BioNTech was founded in 2008 in the German city of Mainz in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate by husband-and-wife scientist team Ugur Sahin (55), the company’s chief executive and his wife Ozlem Tureci (53), along with Christoph Huber, a cancer expert.

READ MORE: COVID-19 vaccine: BioNTech and Pfizer report 90% effectiveness in trials

Both Sahin and Tureci are the children of Turkish immigrants who moved to Germany. Sahin arrived when he was four years old, and his father worked at the Ford factory in Cologne. Tureci’s father was a doctor. The pair met while Sahin was working at a teaching hospital and married in 2002.

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The couple founded their first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals in 2001 working on immunotherapy cancer treatment, and sold it in 2016 for €422m (£381m, $502m).

"Influenced by my father, who worked as a doctor, I could not imagine any other profession even when I was a young girl," Tureci told the Wissenschaftsjahr website.

They then started BioNTech in 2008 to focus on using messenger RNA (mRNA) drugs for cancer immunotherapy. Unlike traditional vaccines, which work by putting weak or inactivated doses of a virus or bacteria into the body to make the immune systems produce antibodies, m-RNA vaccines work by transmitting a genetic code to cells telling them produce a protein, which in turn activates the immune system.

“He [Sahin] is a very modest and humble person. Appearances mean little to him. But he wants to create the structures that allow him to realise his visions and that’s where is aspirations are far from modest,” Matthias Theobald, an oncology professor at Mainz university who has worked with Sahin for 20 years, told Reuters.

Forbes reports that the positive news about BioNTech’s potential vaccine (called BNT162) this week boosted Sahin’s personal worth by more than $500m (£380m) to around $4.4bn, while its two biggest investors, German brothers Thomas and Andreas Struengmann saw their net worth soar by $1.5bn.

According to Welt am Sonntag’s yearly list of the richest Germans, which came out in October, Sahin and his wife were in 93rd place, after their wealth quadrupled in 2019 to €2.4bn.

The company employs around 1,300 staff around the world, 500 of those in its Mainz headquarters.

BioNTech husband-and-wife founders
BioNTech husband-and-wife founders

In early 2020, Sahin read a paper in the Lancet about a virus spreading in China and the company turned its focus on developing a potential vaccine using mRNA technology in partnership with US pharma giant Pfizer, which is bringing its development, commercial and regulatory clout to the partnership.

BioNTech also partners with Fosun Pharmaceutical in Shanghai for China distribution.

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The company now has three production bases in Germany — including the one it bought in Marburg from Novartis in September — and orders for millions of doses of its vaccine, once it is approved.

The European Commission is finalising agreement to purchase 200 million doses, with the option to buy an additional 100 million. The US has agreed to take 100 million, the UK is to purchase 30 million and recently New Zealand put its order in for 1.5 million doses.

In September, the German government jumped in with extra funding in September, announcing it would give the company €375m for research and development.

BioNTech reported a second-quarter net loss of €88m in August, up from a loss of around €50m in the same quarter of 2019. It will report on its third-quarter results later today (10 November).

READ MORE: BioNTech reports quarterly loss as it pushes ahead with COVID-19 vaccine trials

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