27.11.2019, Rheinland-Pfalz, Mainz: Ugur Sahin, Vorstandsvorsitzender BioNTech, gestikuliert während des Interviews. BioNTech ist ein Biotechnologie-Unternehmen, das sich auf die Entwicklung und Herstellung für einen patientenspezifischen Ansatz zur Behandlung von Krebs und anderen schweren Krankheiten fokussiert. Foto: Andreas Arnold/dpa | usage worldwide
Ugur Sahin, founder of BioNTech, saw 'straightaway' the prospect that the coronavirus disease could spread globally © picture alliance/dpa

In mid-January, immunologist Ugur Sahin read an article in the Lancet, a British medical journal, about a new virus that had surfaced in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province.

The paper, which outlined how the disease had spread among a family of six, hardly mentioned the prospect that it would spread globally, let alone become a pandemic.

But the 54-year-old “saw it straightaway”, a close colleague said.

Days later, Prof Sahin sent an email to the board of his biotech company, BioNTech, in the German city of Mainz, raising the alarm.

“Experts experienced with previous outbreaks said this will come and go,” he recalled. “I said: ‘No, this time it is different’.”

The Turkish-born, teetotal professor of experimental oncology has built two billion-dollar companies, but until recently, was unknown outside the worlds of academia and biotech.

That has changed with the deadly coronavirus outbreak and the race to develop a vaccine.

BioNTech, which Prof Sahin founded with his wife, physician and immunologist Özlem Türeci, and his former professor Christopher Huber in 2008, was suddenly under the media microscope, its expertise in messenger RNA (mRNA) — which carries instructions for human cells to produce proteins from DNA — touted as a fast-track route to mass-inoculation.

Unlike regular vaccines, which can take decades to produce, an mRNA vaccine could theoretically be quickly and cheaply manufactured in labs from a DNA template. Instead of introducing antigens into the body to produce an immune response, mRNA vaccines send genetic information to a cell that can be translated into proteins that fight disease.

BioNTech is one of three mRNA focused companies that have caught the world’s attention in the past few weeks. Its share price has almost tripled in a month and it has signed development agreements with Chinese group Fosun Pharma and Pfizer in the space of a few days.

It is testing a potential coronavirus vaccine on mice in a lab in Mainz, with trials on humans scheduled to start as soon as the end of April.

But for the product to make it to market in a matter of months, US, European and Chinese regulators would have to accelerate their approval processes, and waive requirements for large clinical trials.

Prof Sahin, who still rides his mountain bike to work, and whose days are usually carefully planned, has been forced to adopt a punishing schedule and take on the role of commander in a company that is on a “war footing”.

With the BioNTech building closed to everyone other than lab workers and essential staff, he starts his day with video calls to teams in China, before checking in on the Covid-19 vaccine’s progress.

Discussions with research institutes, regulators and crisis co-ordinators such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness in Washington follow, and the day ends with updates from Pfizer US collaborators, which carry on late into the evening.

A scientist who reluctantly moved into management, Prof Sahin is a calm, measured person and being at the forefront of fighting a global crisis has done little to alter his thoughtful, deliberate style.

“I haven’t worked with anyone like him,” said Sean Marett, BioNTech’s UK-born chief commercial officer, who first met him in 2003.

Prof Sahin, he said, avoids checking the company’s share price, or responding to speculative statements emanating from the White House and Brussels that an mRNA vaccine could be ready by the autumn.

Instead, he spends what spare time he has preparing data for regulators, and investors, who will become crucial once production becomes a possibility.

He is the only board member to have an office in the building where the laboratory work is carried out and generally prioritises mentoring PhD students and overseeing experiments over wooing investors.

Nonetheless, he has an impressive record of raising cash. His first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, had pharma entrepreneurs Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann — founders of generics giant Hexal that was sold to Novartis for $7.5bn — among its first investors. The brothers own a large stake in BioNTech.

Last August, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation became involved, investing $55m in Prof Sahin’s company, which until 2015 focused mainly on cancer therapies, to help develop drugs to tackle HIV and tuberculosis.

The Gates’ interest in infectious diseases prompted a board discussion “about what we would do in a pandemic situation”, said Mr Marett.

“But although scientists had said that the world was overdue for another pandemic, we weren’t expecting to have to act on our discussion six months later.”

Coronavirus business update

How is coronavirus taking its toll on markets, business, and our everyday lives and workplaces? Stay briefed with our coronavirus newsletter.

Sign up here

Having a scientific journal-obsessed academic — he spends his holidays reading them — in charge helped BioNTech respond with speed to the outbreak, Mr Marett added.

“I didn’t immediately register just how serious it was,” he said. Prof Sahin “was ahead of the curve”, immediately dedicating more than 400 staff to Covid-19 research.

That number is likely to go up, if BioNTech makes headway, and Prof Sahin’s other pursuits will be put on hold for a while.

“We are going to face two potential scenarios: either a very fast pandemic or a prolonged epidemic situation which will last for the next 16 to 18 months,” Prof Sahin said.

“I hope it’s the latter.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article