Covid-19: The immigrant heroes behind the BioNTech vaccine

Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci are the co-founders of BioNTech SE, the German company that — with its American partner Pfizer — appears closest to rolling out a working vaccine against Covid-19
Covid-19: The immigrant heroes behind the BioNTech vaccine

The coronavirus vaccine being produced by BioNTech founded by husband and wife team Ugaur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci. Picture: File Photo

Thank heavens for people like Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci. 

Husband and wife, they’re co-founders of BioNTech SE, the German company that — with its American partner Pfizer — appears closest to rolling out a working vaccine against Covid-19. 

He’s the chief executive officer, she’s the chief medical officer. The story of their quest to use a novel scientific method to defeat that disease, as well as cancer and others, would suffice to make them heroes of our time. But it should also offer inspiration and cause reflection in another way: They’re both from immigrant families.

Now in their fifties, both are children of Turks who came to West Germany during its long postwar economic boom, when the country invited so-called “guest workers” to help fill gaping labour shortages. 

Sahin was four years old when he moved with his mother from Turkey to Cologne to join his father, who was employed in a car factory there.

Tureci was born in Germany to a Turkish father who was working as a doctor in a small Catholic hospital. Their journey as Turkish Germans cannot have been easy. Discrimination, overt or subtle, is rife in German society. This study, for example, showed that teachers in elementary school tend to give worse grades to students with Turkish-sounding names than to those with German ones and to send them on less promising tracks in secondary school.

Unlike the US or Canada, Germany has never seen itself as a nation of immigrants. For a long time, it maintained the fiction that the guest workers would someday go “home” again. When they didn’t — or rather, when it became clear that Germany was their home — the country entered decades of political controversies over citizenship laws, integration policies and the meaning of national identity.

The overall tenor of the debate was often that immigrants, and especially the large Turkish minority, represent a social burden. In that myopia, Germany is hardly unique. What politicians and voters in many countries tend to miss is that immigrants are more likely to be boon than bane for their adopted nations.

Study after study shows that immigrants tend to be net job creators rather than “job takers,” because they’re disproportionately likely to be entrepreneurs. That’s also been the case in Germany, where a growing proportion of new businesses since the 1990s has been started by people “with a migration background,” in the awful phrase German bureaucrats use for anybody with foreign roots.

In Germany, as in the US and elsewhere, that’s led to a bifurcated debate about immigration. Politicians and pundits on the right have conniptions about foreigners and new arrivals, at least the poor or undocumented ones. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley and other hubs of innovation celebrate the likes of Sergey Brin (born in the Soviet Union), Arianna Huffington (Greece) or Elon Musk (South Africa). 

Without them, nobody today would be Googling, reading the Huffington Post or driving a Tesla. The well-deserved stardom of people like Sahin and Tureci is just what Germany needs. After all, their breakthroughs — and let’s hope they pan out — are mind-blowing. 

For decades they’ve been pioneering the use of messenger RNA, molecules that tell our cells what proteins to make, to train our own immune systems to attack anything from cancer tumours to the spikes on SARS-CoV-2. It shouldn’t matter what background innovators have. But the disproportionate success of immigrants, especially in the science and technology industries, is noteworthy. 

What is it about their experience that’s different? One theory is that immigrants benefit from “self-selection,” because only the most motivated and adventurous pack up and embark on the difficult journey from home. Another is that immigrants become self-employed and entrepreneurial precisely in response to the discrimination they face in their adopted nations, which bars other career paths.

But the theory that might fit the likes of Sahin and Tureci best is that there’s something in cross-cultural experiences that often makes people open-minded, creative and focused. One piece of research suggests that the constant switching of perspectives that comes with having a multicultural background helps identify new and good ideas. Sahin and Tureci are now, thanks to BioNTech’s soaring share price, among the richest Germans, at least on paper. And yet they still bike to work and live with their teenage daughter in the same simple apartment in a smallish German city. 

They are science geeks in the best possible sense. On the day they got married in 2002, they went to their lab first, then the ceremony, and then straight back to the lab. Gloating that his country leads in the quest to vanquish Covid-19, Health Minister Jens Spahn said in recent days that he’s “of course very pleased that it is a German company, a German research and development team, a German biotech enterprise". In his own way, he was expressing an acceptance, validation and appreciation of the role of immigrants in German life that’s long overdue.  

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.

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