Science

INTERVIEW: BioNTech founders Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin on developing the BioNTech-Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, the future of fighting cancer, and whether people can live to 200

Summary List PlacementMathias Döpfner: On January 25, 2020, you were both sitting having breakfast, talking about this strange virus from China. You reportedly decided to take it seriously and develop a vaccine. On the same day, the first known infection in Germany happened. Is that story more truth or legend? Ugur Sahin: That really is the way it was. I had read a publication in The Lancet on that Friday evening. The outbreak in Wuhan had been going on for about three weeks. After reading the article and doing some research, I was very worried that the outbreak was not going...

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Summary List Placement

Mathias Döpfner: On January 25, 2020, you were both sitting having breakfast, talking about this strange virus from China. You reportedly decided to take it seriously and develop a vaccine. On the same day, the first known infection in Germany happened. Is that story more truth or legend?

Ugur Sahin: That really is the way it was. I had read a publication in The Lancet on that Friday evening. The outbreak in Wuhan had been going on for about three weeks. After reading the article and doing some research, I was very worried that the outbreak was not going to stay within the confines of China. We discussed it at breakfast. After talking about it, we had no doubt whatsoever that the virus would spread worldwide. And we knew we had a technology in our hands that we could use to develop a vaccine very fast. We knew we had to do something.

DöpfnerSo that breakfast conversation was the moment you decided you had to do something. Did you start immediately? 

Özlem Türeci: We had read reports in medical journals about this new lung disease in the province Hubei. Ugur started planning the first steps to develop our vaccine right away. It was that weekend we already decided we would go for it. And on Monday, we started working on it with our team right away.

Döpfner: You didn’t have to ask some committee for permission, but were able to take that decision on your own?

Sahin: It wasn’t a lone decision, but we were pretty sure we would be able to convince our colleagues and the supervisory board.

Döpfner: And was everyone convinced from the outset, or were there skeptics?

Sahin: We spoke objectively about what was going on. There are, of course, different levels of being convinced. Some people might have given their consent despite not yet being fully convinced. Everyone who works with us knows that if we come to a decision we don’t change our minds two weeks later. Once we have taken something on and actually started working on it, that means it already makes a lot of sense to us. It wasn’t difficult to get consent and get going on it right away.

Döpfner: In some ways it was also the ideal case for applying the knowledge you had already been able to gain in mRNA technology to a specific, large-scale case.

Sahin: Yes, absolutely, although we did actually have a lot already planned for 2020 — our entire cancer research work, which we had presented just a week before in San Francisco. Our plans for 2020 had already been laid out, and then everything changed out of the blue.

Döpfner: Can you explain to me in very simple terms what mRNA is?

Sahin: mRNA is a piece of genetic information that provides cells with a specific blueprint for proteins. It is a natural process in cells, kind of like making a copy from the hard drive, the DNA, which is then the RNA. That is why it is called ‘messenger RNA’. We found this messenger very attractive, because of a really good property it has. It is a carrier of information, like an email that is deleted after it has been opened and read. The cell performs its natural task and works according to our instructions. The art is — to remain with the email metaphor — to make sure the message does not end up in spam, but is actually applied as an instruction. If we achieve this efficiently, then the cell does what it is supposed to do.

Döpfner: So, you trick the immune system into thinking it has a virus without actually needing the real virus?

Sahin: Yes, that’s what it does. It trains the immune system without needing exposure to the real virus. 

Döpfner: Is it true that the vaccine was developed within a very short time, about 48 hours, and that the majority of the time was required for carrying our studies and making other preparations?

Sahin: We designed around ten potential vaccines in a very short time, and later on another ten. We didn’t know which one was the right one, because we didn’t know very much about the virus. What we had then was a number of different vaccine variants. Research is ultimately about developing a variant and proving that variant does exactly the job you hope it will.

Döpfner: That means, you began testing 20 variants. Then you found one that probably was the most efficient and went on to carry out clinical tests on it in larger numbers?

Sahin: The vaccine we have today, as it were, already existed in February. But it was unclear how it worked. Knowing that requires data and clinical proof from a large-scale study. 

Döpfner: Despite the fact that it was the fastest approval of a vaccine in history, could you have been even faster from a technological point of view?

Sahin: A lot of processes can always be done a little faster, but in terms of the technology, there was not much left to do. We could perhaps have gained a few days’ time. Today we know what we can do better next time. It is a great result, of course. We were able to use the mRNA technology so quickly and successfully when developing the vaccine, because we had already made so much progress during our work on it in the previous 10 years.

Döpfner: What was the eureka moment for you – the moment you realized: “We have it!” Was it when you designed the first 20 vaccine variants, or when you identified the variant that would be clinically tested? When was that exact moment?

Sahin: Later. It was a Sunday in November. We had run through the phase-3 study with more than 40,000 test subjects and were waiting for an independent committee to return its evaluation of the results. We woke up early and realized, this is the moment of truth. We knew we had developed the best possible vaccine, but we didn’t know how the virus would react to it. That was the big unknown factor. There had never been a vaccine against coronaviruses. So, we were also prepared to accept a negative outcome. At 8 o’clock in the evening, we received the call from our colleagues in the US. I held my breath until, five seconds later, the voice on the other end said that the result was positive, and it with an efficacy of more than 90%. That was the eureka moment for us.

Döpfner: What moment was more important? The one when you were sitting having breakfast, or the announcement that the evaluation was positive or the approval?

Sahin: The moment of biological truth, so the moment we got that positive feedback from the committee.

Döpfner: What was it that motivated you?  

Türeci: For us it was about protecting people and saving lives. We understood how SARS-CoV-2 spread. There were symptomatic and asymptomatic infections. We had heard that one of the few measures taken during the outbreak in China had been to allow only people without any symptoms to travel out of Wuhan. But we also knew that there are people who have an infection but are not visibly ill, and who spread the virus unknowingly. Ugur simulated it and did some mathematical projections showing that we were already in the middle of a pandemic, or a large-scale epidemic.

Sahin: The virus had basically already spread worldwide. However, the pandemic was not yet visible. 

Türeci: It was pure mathematics based on our own assumptions.

Döpfner: You were unbelievably fast in producing the vaccine. The European Union was far slower in ordering it. Does it worry you that during this crisis Europe has not been seen as a fast and good problem solver, but more of a problem zone that is less equipped to get the job done than many non-EU countries?

Sahin: The way I see it is that it doesn’t make sense to point the finger in the middle of a crisis. The best thing is to really focus on first finding a solution. The people we work together with in the EU have a very solutions-oriented approach. The EU is doing its work, and everyone has to contribute towards ending the pandemic. At the outset, nearly all the experts said it would take at least three years after the beginning of the pandemic to have a vaccine. Now, one year after the pandemic got underway, we have already administered seven million vaccines in Germany and supplied the EU with approximately 30 million doses. We’re doing pretty well.

Döpfner: You are so diplomatic that you could almost work for the EU. Some voices in Brussels said you charged too much and that they couldn’t place orders because of that. But it wasn’t quite like that, was it?

Sahin: We have a very constructive relationship with our partners in the EU.

Döpfner: In Israel, 40% of the population has already received their second vaccine dose, 60% has had their first one. The US wants to have all adults eligible to receive the vaccine by May, while in Serbia 20-year-olds are already being vaccinated. England is also much further down that road than Germany or every other EU country. Do you think it’s okay that there are people who are waiting for a vaccination and are angry about that and blame the EU for it? An international pandemic could be a moment of historical importance for an international organization like the EU. Why are so many countries who are not in the European Union doing a better job of it?

Türeci: We are in a crisis, a time of insecurity, of vulnerability. A time in which everyone involved – also politicians – are having to do things they’ve never had to do before. Obviously, everything is not going to go smoothly. We understand both sides – there is a lot of fear and insecurity. It is important to focus on a solution.

Döpfner: If you look back once again at the second half of last year and consider the way orders were placed, did you see any differences? The EU reportedly spent two months just arguing about what jurisdiction should apply for the order contracts, whether it should be England or Belgium. While in other countries, like Israel for example, the Prime Minister himself got on the telephone and asked what you needed to get the contract signed as soon as possible. And the papers got signed the next morning. Did you see any differences between an extremely pragmatic attitude on the one side and perfectionism in getting the process right on the other?

Sahin: We have seen the entire spectrum. Every country has differences in its judicial framework, processes and structures of governance.

Döpfner: What would you constructively recommend to the EU, and in particular to the German government, so that they can become better and faster? What has been lacking in the crisis so far and what can we do to make it better very soon?

Türeci: I don’t have any concrete recommendations, more a general, fundamental aspect. I think that it’s a matter of running the process several times to make the machine, which is being used for the first time now, work in a regulated manner. It is a learning process at all levels, and there are a number of questions that have to be answered. What is the best way to organize the distribution? How can the vaccine be transported? How can it be stored? How can you best contact the people you want to vaccinate? What should be done when some of the vaccine is left over? These are very complex matters, and they require the interplay of many actors.

Döpfner: Have the Germans have perhaps been a little too perfectionist at this point. That they haven’t been pragmatic enough?

Sahin: It has been about fairness, which is important. But we also need pragmatism, that’s clear.

Döpfner: In Israel people can get vaccinated at IKEA or in a bar. Do we also need to be a bit more imaginative in how we organize mass vaccination?

Türeci: Yes, pragmatism. You said it yourself. That was the factor that helped us successfully develop the vaccine so fast and absolutely everyone, even the regulatory authorities, were just as pragmatic when it came to doing their part. That could certainly be transferred to the vaccination campaigns. On the other hand, we have to accept it when things don’t go perfectly right away. It’s all about learning from that and doing things better in future. Perfectionism is worth striving for once the process is established. We aren’t that far yet, but then how could we be?

Döpfner: Is a clear sense of responsibility also important in a crisis situation?

Türeci: In crisis situations it is always important to be prepared. We know about that from working as doctors in emergency care. In the case of COVID-19, there could be no dry run, because it’s something we’ve never faced before. You can only establish processes in a way that achieves certain purposes when they are actually taking place. 

Döpfner: What percentage of the population has to be vaccinated in order for us to say we’ve succeeded?

Türeci: We don’t have a precise answer to that. Many experts estimate around 70%.

Sahin: What is really important is that we begin with the older generation. Those who are at risk most. And once we have managed to immunize the elderly, then we’ll very soon see a drop in mortality and hospitalization.

Döpfner: But you still recommend every young person age 16 and up get vaccinated? 

Sahin: Yes, even children – at a later stage, after clinical testing. That section of the population is important for the often-mentioned herd immunity. 

Döpfner: When will Germany reach 70% vaccination?

Sahin: We think we might achieve that by the end of September.

Döpfner: Is that because you’re coming onto the market with large amounts now and you have greatly increased production by around 25%?

Sahin: Yes, we have increased the production targets even more. We were at 1.3 billion, and now we’re at 2 billion doses. And we’re thinking about how we can even top that.

Döpfner: How did you actually solve that logistically – producing and distributing in such great numbers?

Sahin: Production is a considerable process, but we’re on schedule and we’re very happy with the way things are going. It’s simple to organize distribution once an infrastructure is in place. That’s why we went into partnership with Pfizer, a company that has worldwide logistic capacities and that is experienced in delivering a billion vaccines a year.

Dopfner: Do you believe that we will have the pandemic under control globally by the end of the year? 

Sahin: In many countries in Europe and the US, we will probably no longer have to go into or be in lockdown by the end of the summer. We will, of course, continue to see local outbreaks, that will always be there in the background. There will be mutations. But it is very unlikely that they will cause fear. The vaccine will have to be adapted, and we’re working on that already. It will be about another year at least until we have worldwide control over the situation.

Döpfner: Do you think that our goal is to conquer the virus or to learn to live with it? 

Sahin: The virus will not disappear. We’ll have to see whether we need a vaccination every year or every five years.

Döpfner: When we speak about pragmatism, can you imagine that there might one day be something like a self-administered vaccination? That people can use in the same way as allergy pens, that the vaccine can be injected by someone without medical training?

Sahin: That’s not really necessary. Once people’s family doctors become involved, it won’t be a problem to vaccinate 80 million people every year. Having the vaccine administered by medically-trained people is important because of possible allergic reactions. They don’t happen often, but they do happen.

Döpfner: How high is the percentage of allergic reactions observed to date? It seems to me the risk is lower than the risk of dying of an allergy after eating a piece of cake with nuts in it. 

Sahin: We didn’t see any in our clinical trials. The cases that were seen during the vaccination campaign were compiled and analyzed by public authorities. We cannot yet say anything definitive about our vaccine, and it’s different from vaccine to vaccine. The ratio is somewhere between 1-in-100,000 and 1-in-2 million.

Döpfner: Your initial intention with your technology was not actually to fight a pandemic, but to advance the field of cancer treatment. What is your vision there?

Türeci: We are oncologists, and we see firsthand what cancer patients go through. With many tumor patients, the range of standard treatments often turns out to be insufficient and we have to tell them, sorry, but we’ve run out of treatment options. We already realized very early on that a lot more would be possible if the research results could be brought to the patient in real time. We saw no other way but to become entrepreneurs. So, we set up companies and NGOs to develop cancer medicines. Our vision is to be able to use the immune system to fight cancer. That’s what we are doing with BioNTech. We have developed a series of immune-therapy approaches, and mRNA is one of four. We are using it as part of a range of methods to attack tumors from different angles.

Döpfner: Many people have prophesied that mRNA technology will bring massive progress to cancer research, because it has proven its effectiveness in the pandemic. But does it mean you have lost another year because that project had to be put on ice for a while? 

Türeci: Yes, we have lost time. But not an entire year. Our cancer research projects were limited anyway because of the pandemic and lockdown. Cancer patients were not able to easily take part in clinical studies, and material couldn’t just be sent back and forth.

Döpfner: The negative effects are probably more than compensated for due to the higher company valuation, you now have an enormous amount of money at your disposal. How many potential cancer medicines do you currently have in development?

Sahin: We have 30 in development. It’s correct that the vaccine is transforming the company. We’ll be generating real income for the first time, which we can reinvest. And a lot more than we planned or were able to before. We will try to take a broader approach in the company. Try to accelerate our  projects and also try to develop further medicines from the progress we have made – medicines that protect lives.

Döpfner: In addition to earning money, you will no doubt gain a great deal of experience. The approval processes will likely become faster because of that. Will that help with the cancer treatments?

Sahin: It has been impressive to see with this vaccine how well public authorities and companies can work together. I’ll give you one example: We sent our study application documents and had the approval to get started three days later because this was an emergency situation. Obviously, we would like to see the same standards applied for cancer patients. Normally when we submit documents, the authorities answer us about three months later. I would like to see debate in society about that – why is it possible to speed things up so much for a COVID vaccine and not for cancer treatments?

Döpfner: You have a cancer vaccine approach in which you can develop an individual therapeutic for each patient. That should make a traditional approval process superfluous, because it is then only a matter of solving that particular case. Is the idea not yet approved?

Sahin: The principle is approved for clinical trials. We have used the candidate on individual patients and have the first indications that immune responses are taking place and that the tumor can regress. But we haven’t done a large, randomized trial yet, as we did with the coronavirus vaccine, to demonstrate that those who are vaccinated systematically have a better course.

Döpfner: When will it be possible to get a vaccination or treatment against specific types of cancer in this individualized form? When will life-extending effects be achieved?

Sahin: We’re currently in phase two. Depending on whether those studies are positive, we imagine that we could have a package for initial submission to the authorities in 2024. 

Döpfner: So, one might say that, indirectly, the coronavirus pandemic has had a positive effect on the research and application of your oncology therapy.

Türeci: Yes, one could say so. With the coronavirus vaccine, we have gone through all the stages of development that we have not even reached yet with the cancer vaccines. We can now bring that to bear in the cancer projects. Of course, we need further data for each additional drug, and you can’t just extrapolate things. Even so, regulators around the world have seen very clearly how mRNA works, what the safety and tolerability profile is, and what quality testing of the production can look like. So we have now presented important information, although we are not yet that far along in the actual development of cancer vaccines.

Sahin: By the end of the year, one billion people may have been vaccinated with mRNA vaccines. 

Döpfner: What do you say to the objection, spread mainly by vaccine skeptics, that someone is fiddling with their DNA. I know that’s not the case. But isn’t there a risk matrix for you at some point, where you say, we have to pay particular attention to this because something could change in the long run?

Sahin: Of course, we must continue to monitor compatibility and safety. But not in terms of genetic alterations. That can be scientifically ruled. But it’s a basic principle of medicine that you collect extensive data on everything you don’t know about yet. We’ll have more tolerability data from our clinical trial in a month or two. In other words, there is more and more data that we can evaluate. In the vaccination campaigns, around 100 million people have already been vaccinated with our mRNA vaccine. And this data is continuously examined by the authorities. So the more days that pass, and the more subjects that have been vaccinated, the larger our tolerability database becomes.

Döpfner: Indeed, your success has rested largely on data, data analysis, and data transparency. Israel is probably the most interesting coronavirus laboratory in the world right now because it has digital health data on over 90% of the population and the high vaccination rate makes it possible to glean an extraordinary number of insights. What is your general view of this tension between data protection and individual rights on the one hand and the medical context of the need for data transparency and data use on the other?

Sahin: We need concepts that ensure both. One does not exclude the other. What we need is legal certainty. We often struggle to interpret new and national data protection laws because they are ambiguous. One question, for instance, is: Can we merge data and share it with a collaborative partner? Unfortunately, there is not always a clear answer to this question. Instead, there are long discussions. We need binding legal certainty as a better basis for understanding how we can do medical research. It’s not in anyone’s interest for researchers to have to act without clear legal guidelines.

Döpfner: Your company is currently worth some 25 billion euros. It is a biotech platform. We talk about the privacy rules and issues at the big traditional tech platforms, such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google. But you need data, indeed highly personal data, to be able to help at all. What is your vision for how a biotech platform can grow and help while still handling data in a way that is compatible with an open, democratic society?

Sahin: The basic idea is: The more we know about the patient and their tumor, the better we can tailor our drugs. And, of course, we generate data for that purpose. For example, we examine the patient’s tumor and identify the mutation so that we can then develop an individualized drug. And to generate this data, there must be a corresponding agreement with the patient. You need an information sheet. You have to be very clear about what you’re using the data for. This is also very important for us. We are very firm about the fact that we are not developing a business model with this data. This data will not be made available to anyone.

Döpfner: Never?

Sahin: Never.

Döpfner: One could also do it like the Danes. They have digital patient data on nearly 100% of the population. Any doctor can theoretically view the data at any time. However, they may only do so with the express consent and in the presence of the patient. If a doctor violates the law, they immediately lose their license. Could this philosophy be transferred in part so that we put the principle of credible consent above everything and then really only have fair transparency for therapeutic purposes?

Türeci: Absolutely. But this is not an issue that concerns a single company, but a concept that requires a societal discussion and which would eventually have to be introduced at the national level.

Döpfner: I’ll venture a prediction, today you are worth 25 billion euros. I think you could easily be worth 250 billion euros in the future, or even much more, and then, together with a few other players, have an extremely dominant, almost market-controlling position. One problem that we see with tech platforms is the abuse of power. In the case of biotech platforms, that could take an even more potent form. You have long development times and high development costs for many things, and you need a capitalist incentive to be able to develop at all. Regulators can’t simply say that all the patents you’ve developed will be made available to everyone. You need that competitive advantage for a period of time. The framework conditions thus almost necessarily bring forth monopolistic or duopolistic structures. It’s a dilemma. Do you have any ideas about how to create a fair regulatory framework for such super-companies?

Sahin: That’s a good question. Fundamentally, it’s about not taking advantage of your position, but using it to make medical progress. What that means is that we want to treat diseases that are not treatable today. These are what are referred to as “blue ocean models.” Areas in which there is as yet no competition at all. I don’t have a general answer. But basically, I proceed from the assumption that any new platform or approach has to grapple with the fact that the next solution might be a better one. Patents that we generate today have a limited term anyway. And patents alone do not make a drug.

Döpfner: What has been your experience with founding a company in Germany? What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs? Or would you tell them: Go to America!

Türeci: It is possible to startup in Germany, as you can see. It’s not an easy process. It’s difficult because we have scarcely any venture capital or private investors here in Germany. It’s easier in the US. On the other hand, we have very good research here. Here, investments are made in basic and applied research at an early stage. The building blocks are very good. But you need staying power.

Döpfner: Because there is so much overregulation and it takes a long time?

Sahin: For a long time there was a skepticism that it was possible to really make a difference by starting a business. Three years ago, we were asked: Why should a company from Mainz, of all places, be successful when there are companies in Boston tackling the same issue? There is a lack of belief that something can come out of Germany that is innovative and competitive with international rivals.

Döpfner: Skepticism against genetic research is extremely pronounced in Germany. Did that inhibit you in the beginning?

Sahin: No. By the time we started, biotechnology was already established as a scientific discipline. It’s more the phase after that. Developing a drug to the point of approval is expensive. It can quickly cost a billion euros. And raising that sum in Germany is very, very difficult.

Döpfner: Approximately 375 million euros in subsidies flowed into your company from Germany last year. Shouldn’t Germany therefore get more of the vaccine?

Sahin: According to the agreement with the EU and on the basis of orders from the other EU states, Germany will actually receive a disproportionate share to some extent.

Döpfner: When people look back on you in 100 years, will you be remembered more as the inventors of the first and best coronavirus vaccine or as the most successful fighters against cancer?

Türeci: We hope that the second case also comes to fruition. Cancer is just as bad as a pandemic, but we are not as conscious of it. But here, too, worlds collapse; the worlds of patients and their families. So we will not be resting on our laurels.

Döpfner: Will cancer eventually be defeated completely?

Türeci: There will be cancers that can eventually be cured.

Döpfner: How long will people be able to live?

Sahin: In principle, it is already biologically conceivable to significantly increase the lifespan of humans through treatments.

Türeci: This is a field in which a lot of research is being done, for example in the field of regenerative medicine. 

Döpfner: Are there other fields in medicine that you find particularly exciting? Where things are happening that you would call game-changers?

Sahin: The regenerative approaches are highly interesting. This is associated with cell regeneration, but also the regeneration of organs. And also, the fundamental question: What causes us to age? There is no compelling reason why we must age or why we must age so quickly. There is no compelling reason why dogs only live to be 14 years old…

Döpfner: …and turtles 200.

Sahin: Exactly. There is no obvious necessity for that. It’s the programming of our cells. And in principle it is possible to interfere with this programming. This is a very interesting and highly exciting field of research.

Döpfner: As a matter of principle, physicians do not want patients to die. They want to save lives. They want to prolong people’s lives. The ideal would be immortality. Is that something you would see as a goal?

Türeci: I wouldn’t go that far.

Sahin: Immortality is very unlikely. But a very long life? That should be possible.

Döpfner: And you would think that was good, if we all lived to be 200?

Türeci: If we stayed healthy in the process. At the end of the day, it’s all about aging healthily without getting sicker or frailer.

Döpfner: Quantity does not guarantee quality. 

Türeci: In the end, everyone has to decide that for themselves. Not everyone wants that.

Döpfner: You were born in Germany as a child of guest workers, Ms. Türeci, and you were born in Anatolia, Mr. Sahin. And you first made a career for yourselves in Germany and now on the global level. It’s an incredible success story. How has your life changed?

Türeci: Not much has changed for us. We live the same way as before. A bit differently due to the lockdown, of course. But as Ugur always says so beautifully: Scientists usually do not act on the stage, but backstage.

Sahin: We are extremely focused. Everything we care about is in our heads. We have a vision. We have just updated our plans.

Döpfner: Do you still have ties to Turkey? Do you ever go there?

Sahin:  Our parents are no longer alive. We still have some relatives there.

Türeci: Although many are scattered all over the world.

Döpfner: Do you speak German with each other?

Türeci: Yes.

Döpfner: How do you view Turkey’s political development?

Sahin: We can’t judge that well enough.

Döpfner: That’s too bad. Almost frightening. What does the value of freedom mean to you?

Sahin: To me, freedom is deciding for yourself, being able to do what you feel passionate about. If we couldn’t do that, it would make us unhappy. So freedom is very important for that reason.

Türeci: It is the foundation for innovation, change and transformation. That wouldn’t be possible without freedom. In this respect, freedom has to be all the more important to a scientist.

Döpfner: Although you make a living from vaccines, you have explicitly opposed compulsory vaccination. Is that too unfree for you?

Sahin: Yes. Everyone has to decide that for themselves. But we must create transparency so that everyone can decide for themselves.

Döpfner: Now I’d like to know what that amulet is that you appear to wear at all times.

Sahin: In Turkish, it’s called “Nazar Boncuk.” It’s a protective eye and keeps the evil eye away. 

Türeci: And if it falls off, you need a new one. Because that means it averted a negative event.

Döpfner: So do researchers need the loving eye?

Türeci: You definitely need a team and people who support you. You can’t do it alone. And then one or the other of them marries you.

Döpfner: If you could each make a medical wish, what would it be?

Türeci: Good early cancer diagnostics that can be used broadly.

Sahin: Health in old age. This is the biggest challenge we need to address. We all get older, but with frailty. It would be the most beautiful thing if we could manage to stay healthy as long as possible. 

Türeci: You’re right, Ugur.

Döpfner: You received the Axel Springer Award and one day later the Federal Cross of Merit. Does that mean anything to you or is it just trivia? 

Türeci: Both are great honors. Both are awards given by entities that we hold in high regard. But firstly, we accept them on behalf of our team. Secondly to honor science. And thirdly to recognize the collaboration between all actors who worked on it.

Döpfner: Have there been any real crises and really serious setbacks for you in the whole course of the last few months?

Sahin: We’ve had to overcome crises continuously. We initially planned to produce 100 million doses in 2020. Then it turned out that one of the raw materials was not of the quality we needed. So we had the vaccine, but we had to worry about not being able to produce it. Fortunately, we solved that problem collectively. But that phase was a difficult one.

Döpfner: You are famous, recognized everywhere on the street.  And you go to work by bike. You don’t want a big car.

Türeci: He doesn’t have a driver’s license.

Döpfner: That helps, of course. But do you ever worry that you could lose this down-to-earth quality of your life and lifestyle?

Sahin: No, I don’t think so. The most important thing is why someone does something. And the why hasn’t changed for us. As long as the why doesn’t change, we will not change either.

Döpfner: It is more a question of inner attitude and not outward circumstances?

Sahin: Yes.

Döpfner: And that coordinate system is firmly in place with you. What do you attribute that to? To your parents? Your marriage?

Sahin: It’s everything. It’s important to understand what drives you. It’s a combination. We feel passionate about what we do. We love science, research and development. We are good at what we do. We work with the right people. We have our micro and macro environments. And we have goals that we believe we can achieve and that are worth getting up and working for every day. 

Döpfner: They are systemically relevant, so to speak. The world is watching you. What if you get into a marital spat in the middle of the pandemic?

Türeci: We don’t have that. We don’t know what that is.

Sahin: Marital strife only arises out of boredom. (Laughs)

Türeci: … we certainly don’t have that at the moment with all that’s going on.

Döpfner: That explains your answer to Bill Gates recently when asked what you wanted to do when the pandemic was over, and you said: Sleep.

Türeci: Exactly, to prepare myself for the marital strife.

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