Person of the YearThe Muslim 500

Man of the Year 2022 – Uğur Şahin

Uğur Şahin is an immunologist and the CEO of BioNTech, the company which developed one of the major vaccines against covid-19. By July 2021, Pfizer and BioNTech had distributed one billion doses globally and had orders to deliver several billion more doses, making it one of the most ambitious scale-ups in pharmaceutical history. In 1969, when he was four years old, Şahin emigrated to Germany from İskenderun, Turkey, with his mother where they joined his father who was working at the Ford factory in Cologne. He studied medicine at the University of Cologne, graduating with his doctorate in 1992. He met his wife, Dr Türeci, while studying medicine at Saarland University Hospital, and in 2001 the couple founded the company, Ganymed, which focused on developing therapeutic antibodies. It was during this time that they filed dozens of patents that later formed the company, BioNTech, which they founded in 2008 with their mentor, Christoph Huber. The breakthrough advances they made in mRNA research during this time would gain them the attention of both billionaire investors and the German government, who would put millions into BioNTech to push the research further. Though the main focus of Dr Şahin’s research work is the discovery of mRNA-based drugs for use as cancer immunotherapies, with the advent of the covid-19 pandemic, BioNTech pivoted to using mRNA-based drugs for fighting the new threat. By the end of 2020, BioNTech developed the BNT162b2 vaccine and reported a 95% efficacy against covid-19. It became the first mRNA drug approved for human use. Subsequently, Dr Şahin entered a partnership with Pfizer pharmaceutical company to distribute it worldwide. Due to this partnership, BioNTech skyrocketed in value, making Dr Şahin and his wife among Germany’s top 100 wealthiest people. However, despite his success, Dr Şahin stays humble, preferring to ride a bike to BioNTech headquarters. He still lives with his wife and their daughter in their small apartment in the town of Mainz, Germany.”We do not have special needs,” Dr Şahin says,”we don’t even have a car. A yacht would be impractical.” Still in touch with their poorer immigrant roots, (his family toasts all their accomplishments with Turkish tea), Dr Şahin has often spoken of his wish that the vaccine be distributed widely and fairly. He often worries that rich countries will buy up the majority of doses, leaving the developing world in limbo. The wealthy should not be able to jump the line due to their wealth, he’s often insisted. Despite this, the New York Times released a report in 2021 showing how wealthy areas are receiving vaccines meant for poorer communities in America. And the BBC released a report in 2020 stating that up to 70 lower-income countries will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 people, due to more wealthy countries snapping up the majority of vaccine supplies. Additionally, because of their immigrant background, Dr Şahin and Dr Türeci have been used for political purposes despite their vocal objections; most recently by the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, who has used Dr Şahin and Dr Türeci’s example as successful integration into the country. However, Dr Şahin prefers to concentrate on the advancement of science and medical research.”In science it does not matter where you are from, what counts is what you can do and what you are willing to do,” he says.

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