Inside the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine: how BioNTech made the breakthrough

Inside the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine: how BioNTech made the breakthrough

The husband and wife team behind the German company are pioneers in a technology that could transform medicine

The call came last Sunday evening, as Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci were catching up with paperwork at their modest home near the German city of Mainz. It confirmed that their — at times controversial — lives’ work had produced a breakthrough that could offer humanity a route out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A vaccine candidate developed by the company they co-founded 12 years ago, BioNTech, was more than 90 per cent effective in preventing the disease — a far higher level than the widely-used jabs for flu, shingles or rabies. It proved for the first time that the deadly virus could be vanquished by science.

But even as they basked in the good news — the two teetotallers celebrated on Sunday by brewing some black tea — neither Dr Sahin, nor his research partner and wife, Dr Tureci, are able to explain precisely why their precious product — codenamed BNT162b2 — works.

That is very much by design.

The shot, which is being tested in trials held by US pharma group Pfizer involving more than 43,000 people across six countries, is “an almost perfect vaccine, in some respects”, Dr Sahin told the Financial Times, which has had regular access to the company since March. It works by marshalling a number of pathogen-fighting tools simultaneously, in the hope that one, or several, will defeat Sars-Cov-2. But so far, they do not know which ones are actually succeeding.