BioNTech founders, Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, developed the world’s first effective COVID-19 vaccine. Now they’ve received Spain’s highest honour, the Princess of Asturias Award for their services to science and technology. Euronews caught up with the couple to discuss their success, creating 'scientific supergroups' and what they’re planning on doing next to change the world.
Congratulations on winning this award. How do you feel about it?
"It's very humbling and we feel honoured and overjoyed because it's a very prestigious award and more importantly, it celebrates everything which contributes to serve humanity."
What do you say to people who are still hesitant about getting this vaccine?
"I think we have to, on the one side, listen to the concerns because there's a lot of wrong information spreading and people are concerned because they don't know whom to trust. It's, therefore, our task to inform. It's the task of society, of everyone in the society, to keep communicating. I think it's really important that everyone who received the vaccine and tolerated that, communicates that. We have to come together as a society and avoid that we end up in different bubbles, with different realities."
What we initially heard, more than a year ago, was that it was impossible to create a vaccine in such record time and yet you've done it. So can you understand their fears and reluctance?
"Yes, absolutely. We can understand that. This is not specific to this vaccine. It is a general and, a very natural reaction that people want to first understand what is going on because there is so much information, it's more difficult to sort through it. We are doctors by training. We have treated cancer patients for example, and each and every case that we treated, we have gotten the same questions. What does this treatment mean for me? Is it harmful? People want to be informed about what will happen to them and their bodies. So this is very natural."
"What is also important to understand is that the vaccine was not developed in one year. The vaccine was developed with three decades of research. It is like a sprinter who trained for this event and is fully trained and prepared to go in the shortest possible time and win the race against this pandemic. That's also important to understand, the science behind the vaccine took us 30 years."
Let's talk about the messenger RNA in depth. Where else do you see it leading?
"The Messenger RNA has transformational potential. mRNA is the most ancient information technology, so to say, invented by nature. So you can transport information into cells. You can tell different cells of a body what to do, which means in principle, you can use it universally. It's a toolbox from which you can assemble what you need for a certain disease or for a certain mechanism. The only limiting thing is to understand the disease and understand what type of information we want to convey. Once you know this, you can use MRNA against cancer, against auto-immune diseases, against allergies and for regeneration and we are working on all of those indications and beyond."
What are you setting your sights on next? A cure for malaria, perhaps, or a cure for cancers?
"We now have the opportunity to work on different diseases. On the one side, we would like to use our MRNA technology for fighting diseases, which are, which have been, a challenge for humanity for more than a hundred years; like tuberculosis, malaria. But also for diseases like HIV for which there is no cure existing. So that's one box and we have already started programmes to develop vaccines against it. On the other side, we are continuing our work on cancer to develop cancer vaccines, to train the immune system of the patient to fight their cancer."
Now that you're presumably more than paper billionaires, how has that changed your lifestyles?
"Not at all. It has not changed our lifestyles. Our lifestyles are defined by what we need to feel that we are contributing to something bigger, and, it's not defined by what we seem to have monetarily. So our lifestyles are the same."
But it must be easier to get up and go to work in the morning now?
"For our research and for the development of novel medicines, which are on our list, this is a turbocharger, obviously. It helps us to invest in all those areas in which we think we need to accelerate, we need to go broader, we need to go deeper. So, it has been a blessing that helping to respond to the pandemic allows us now to reverse engineer those proceeds into other areas where there is a similar need."
What other areas are you looking at now?
"So we are looking broadly. We have more than 500 patents on different technologies and we believe that in the future there will be two challenges. On the one side, disease will become more individual. Yes, many of these diseases like cancer, auto-immunity, allergies, but also aging, are individual diseases with individual components. We believe that it is not appropriate anymore to have the same drug because it's the same disease. Everyone has a different disease and we want to establish individualised treatments and we have generated ideas, developed technologies to deal with that. And, it's about cancer. As Ozlem said, it’s about auto-immunity, it's about inflammatory diseases and it's also about diseases like myocardial infarction. What is important to understand is that our immune system is involved in all of these diseases and we are immunologists, we understand how to mediate immune responses and change the behavior of the immune system."
You’re here to pick up this prestigious award for science and technology, an award you're sharing with other people in your field. Is there any chance of you creating a scientific 'supergroup' to do more?
"We already are a scientific supergroup for the scientific community. This was the amazing thing during the pandemic when everyone instantaneously published and made available their observations, their findings characterising the virus, characterising new variants and the sequence of the virus. So we are already a big community, which is now even more tightly knit with the experience of a pandemic. We really trust that this will improve even more because this is really... This working together, sharing data is what will also help us in the future in situations where a crisis can be conquered with science."
You both have a reputation for being workaholics and some might say that's really good for society in general right now. Do you have any dreams, professional dreams, of doing something outside the scientific realm?
"Is there a place outside the scientific realm? I don't understand that."
You've got the money now, the influence, the power, you clearly have the knowledge. Would you think of applying that to anything else?
"Yes. We are driven by two motivations. On the one side, curiosity, we love science. On the other side, we would like to be useful. Right? I believe you can also be useful without doing science and we are interested in understanding what the biggest challenges to humanity are and what are the factors outside of science that need to be addressed to enable people to benefit. We are now in conversations with other people who have the same ideas and understand how they... what they do, and whether we could help. This is also a motivating aspect."
How does it work between you? You have this tremendous union, working on a personal and a professional basis together, but do you ever disagree?
"Every time we disagree on certain topics, and we disagree every day on many topics, it's a chance to come up with something which is even better than what we both think. So we love this scientific debate. If we disagree on something it's most often about what we believe the science tells us. After this discussion, it is a great satisfaction to understand Özlem’s position and to come up with an understanding which is better than the understanding that I had before. Therefore, I see it always as a chance to not agree on things and have this discussion."
Do you share this viewpoint, Özlem?
"Yes, I share it. We can work efficiently together, even though we are married."