The American pharmaceutical company rejected to create a vaccine, thinking that the virus would be contained.
Pfizer rejected at the beginning of the pandemic to manufacture the coronavirus vaccine developed by the marriage of Turkish scientists formed by Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, founders of the German-based company BionNTech, according to information published in the British newspaper The Telegraph.
According to the newspaper, the executives of the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer responded to the Şahin-Türeci couple “guys, this is not going to work” when the Turkish scientists proposed to jointly develop and commercialise the vaccine in January 2020, just as the virus began to spread all over the world.
Then, those responsible for Pfizer justified their decision by telling them that they believed that the virus would be contained and would not be declared a pandemic, so a vaccine would not be necessary. Phil Dormitzer, Pfizer vice president and chief scientist responsible for antiviral vaccines at the company, also felt that the innovative messenger RNA (mRNA) technology that the founders of BionNTech wanted to use in their vaccine was too experimental, and not ready to be used.
“My working hypothesis was that (the SARS-CoV-2 virus) would be controlled,” Dormitzer now admits, explaining that he assumed that this coronavirus would be contained, just as it happened before with the coronaviruses that caused the outbreaks of SARS or of MERS. Even so, the couple of Turkish scientists remained firm in their idea of developing a vaccine against COVID-19, and in using the new mRNA technology to make it effective.
Time proved the Turkish couple who founded BionNTech was right
That double bet, very risky due to the innovation of the technique used and because all of BionNTech’s efforts were focused on a virus that at that time was not even considered a pandemic by the WHO, showed however, in a short time, that Şahin and Türeci were right.
Today, the value of their company has multiplied by almost 20 (4.6 billion dollars before the pandemic, compared to about 85 billion today) but, even so, Şahin and Türeci continue to maintain a modest image when they are awarded for their merits, and unreservedly attend many media, interested in knowing the history of this couple of children of immigrants that created the world’s first effective vaccine against COVID-19.
Speaking to the British newspaper, Şahin explained that when he and his wife decided to make the proposal to “Phil” – as they refer to Phil Dormitzer, from Pfizer – they had a very clear picture of what they believed would happen with the virus; even so, Şahin affirms that they accepted the refusal of Pfizer and Dormitzer because they considered that, given the information that was available at the time, it was “completely rational”.
“After the phone conversation with Phil (to propose the vaccine), I thought just for a second and said: ‘We will call him again in a few weeks,” says Şahin. And the couple believed that it was only “a matter of time” before Pfizer changed its mind and accepted its proposal to manufacture the coronavirus vaccine, once it became clear that the virus was not going to be controlled. Indeed: just a month later, his company BionNTech announced the agreement with Pfizer to jointly produce the vaccine against the coronavirus.
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He is the “old man” of the team, as we like to call him, although he still has a long way to go. A tireless traveller, he has travelled halfway around the world… and pretends to visit the other half!! A political science graduate, he is particularly passionate about the Middle East, the Caucasus and Greece.