BioNTech’s Özlem Türeci talks about the scientific process, the state of the pandemic, and the global vaccine gap.
When the novel coronavirus first reached Europe, the married scientists Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci were working in the small town of Mainz, Germany, at the helm of a biotech company that relatively few people had heard of. The couple founded BioNTech in 2008 to develop individualized vaccines for cancer patients. But the company specialized in a type of genetic material, messenger RNA, that had also shown promise for other diseases — including viral infections.
So when Şahin read an article about Covid-19 in January 2020, he and Türeci both recognized that their company’s mRNA technology might have something powerful to contribute. Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, led a team that rapidly whittled down 20 vaccine candidates to just one: BNT162b2, which could be described as the shot that changed the world. BioNTech partnered with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and in July 2020, the US placed a $1.95 billion order. A few months later, the German government gave BioNTech a $445 million grant to speed up research and production.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the world’s first approved Covid-19 vaccine, and it has helped protect more than a billion people from the coronavirus. The mRNA inside the shot instructs human cells to produce a protein that Türeci compares to a wanted poster. The protein warns the immune system to watch out for the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Şahin and Türeci became famous almost overnight. “We are incredibly proud to have such researchers in our country,” Angela Merkel, then-chancellor of Germany and a chemist by training, said in December 2020. In March, they were awarded one of the nation’s highest honors, the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Federal Order of Merit. Though Şahin and Türeci are now billionaires, they are known for living modestly, commuting to work by bicycle, and working long hours in the lab.
But the company’s ascent has also come with new scrutiny. When I sat down with Türeci at the Falling Walls Science Summit in early November, BioNTech, its partner Pfizer, and its competitor Moderna had been drawing fierce criticism for huge, persistent gaps in access to Covid-19 vaccines. The vast majority of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine doses have gone to a small minority of people — roughly 16 percent of the world’s population — who live in high-income countries.
“It is obscene that just a few companies are making millions of dollars in profit every single hour, while just two and a half percent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus,” said Maaza Seyoum of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which has joined the African Union, India, and the US government in calling on vaccine producers to waive their patents so more countries and companies can produce them. “Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna have used their monopolies to prioritize the most profitable contracts with the richest governments, leaving low-income countries out in the cold.”
I asked Türeci about what BioNTech can do about vaccine inequity, and the company also provided a statement to Vox. “As a COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer we see it as our responsibility to support the worldwide supply of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by continuously increasing our manufacturing capacities,” a spokesperson said, adding that the companies are in the process of doubling their production capacity and plan to make more than 3 billion doses in 2022. “We are fully committed to supplying our vaccine to people around the world in all countries and across all income levels.”
Türeci also discussed the scientific process, the state of the pandemic, and what the past two years have been like. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Can you tell me about the first moment you realized that you and your team could play a big role in fighting Covid-19?
It was the last weekend in January 2020, and my husband — who is with me the founder of the company — read about the virus. The pattern that was described made it very clear that we were already in the midst of a pandemic. It was very clear that a vaccine would be needed as fast as possible. And our technology, which we had optimized for moving fast from a known genetic sequence to vaccine design to manufacturing — it was very clear that it would contribute in this situation. This was the epiphany.
Your team had been working on mRNA vaccines for many years, and your company had recently sold shares to the public and received some major investments. BioNTech was in the right place at the right time — but of course this wasn’t by accident. What have you learned about preparing for the next problem that humans haven’t encountered yet?
Even though it might have seemed that way, this was not something which was developed overnight, as an immediate reaction. We started in the mid-1990s to experiment with mRNA. In 2012, we treated our first patient. These were long years of preparation.
The next threats are already there — but a sense of urgency is not there yet. It is very important, without already seeing the clear threat, to have a vision which can serve as a North Star. And with this perseverance and grit, to work toward actualizing the potential of the technology and trusting in the science to solve it.
The second most important thing is to understand that we are a global community. We are scientists. It wasn’t too clear to us what nonscientific challenges — geopolitical ones, global ethical ones, societal ones — had to be overcome to make all this feasible. Understanding that those are major hurdles, and starting to fix them early on, is important.
Your insight is that we have to treat future problems with the urgency of the present day. We can’t wait for them to emerge, but we should move forward as though they are already here.
Yes. And this is an anthropological thing. Our ancestors have been prepared by evolution to feel alerted and react to anything that is immediately there. We still have this in us. Even though we can visualize what will happen — take the climate, for example — we push it aside.
What do you wish you had done differently?
There is actually nothing I wish I had done differently. It is difficult to reverse-engineer what would have been different with a different action. So the way we did it was the right one.
What do you think the near future holds for the Covid-19 pandemic? What are you concerned about, and what gives you hope?
What I think is important is that we continue to vaccinate. Infection rates and disease rates are rising again. These are not primarily in the vaccinated, but rather the unvaccinated. So we need to reach them.
Equality of distribution is obviously a topic. We are trying to do our share by even further increasing our production and going to all those underserved regions for production facilities.
We have to continue to be alert and test each and every emerging variant to understand when the signal is there to adapt the vaccine to a potential escape variant — and not act prematurely or preemptively.
We have to also see what has been achieved. More than a billion humans have been vaccinated [with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine]. Several vaccines are available. So it’s also important to see the positive side of this.
How do you stay optimistic when cases rise? For example, right now, in Europe and here in Germany, cases are near record highs — after the rollout of this very effective vaccine.
The same way that scientists always do: to focus on solutions which can help. For the current situation, this includes continuing with production and delivery, informing the public about the need for a third booster dose, and providing the data very transparently to the authorities.
You mentioned inequity across the world in distribution. In wealthy countries, around 70 percent of people are vaccinated, but in low-income countries like Haiti or Tanzania, the rate is often under 10 percent. What else can governments and vaccine producers do to close that really large gap?
I think there is not much we can add on top other than what we are already doing as developers and also companies and institutions. Covax, for example, has to facilitate what is not so easy — to deliver to those countries.
I think also it is important to ensure the high quality of vaccines going to those countries, and therefore I don’t like this discussion about patent waivers. In those countries, there is some vaccine hesitancy. People want to be sure that the vaccine they get has the same high quality as we have here in the Western world, where regulatory authorities ensure that, and the manufacturers are qualified to produce the vaccine. It’s important that we keep vaccine quality on the same standard and continue to educate and inform the public there.
[After speaking with Türeci, I asked advocates whether patent waivers could lead to the production of lower-quality vaccines. Anna Marriott, health policy manager at Oxfam — a member of the People’s Vaccine Alliance — said in a statement that it’s “nonsense” to claim that “the experience and expertise to develop and manufacture lifesaving medicines and vaccines does not exist in developing countries. This is just a false excuse that pharmaceutical companies are hiding behind to protect their astronomical profits.”]
Are you troubled by the low numbers of doses that are delivered to low-income countries?
Actually, I don’t think that low numbers in terms of input is a real problem. For example, 40 percent of what we have delivered — and this will continue — have gone to low- and middle-income countries. [Vox asked BioNTech for data supporting that figure, but the company didn’t provide it and we were unable to independently verify the claim.]
In the beginning, getting the framework right, from a geopolitical and logistical and distribution perspective, was a hurdle — and we have overcome that as a global society. Not fully, but important steps have been made, and this has to continue.
What advice would you give to the generation of scientists that may have to respond to the next pandemic?
One needs to be courageous to do things that are risky. On the other side, it’s very important to have humility. Threats of this unprecedented scale and of a global dimension — you can only overcome them with science if you get support from all involved. That needs an interaction which is based on humility and also on trust.
In the past year and a half, you [and your husband] have been extremely busy. Have you found any time for yourself?
We are not really those who distinguish between life and work. We are blessed that what we do is what we love to do. So it’s not really about time for something special. What we do is already fulfilling.