Joe Miller with Dr Özlem Türeci and Dr Ugur Sahin
Review: Lauren O’Connor-May
Joe Miller describes finding one of the pandemic’s most interesting stories as getting “very lucky”.
“I must confess, I’d never heard of BioNTech in January 2020,” the Frankfurt correspondent for the Financial Times said in an interview with an Irish Consulate in Frankfurt am Main.
In fact, before their vaccine made them famous, no one had. The book even humorously details how a scientist, chasing up a rumour of a possible job there, thought she was being pranked when she could not find their website.
“To be honest, at the time I thought I’d write a story about how difficult it is to make a vaccine and how they’d failed,” Miller said in the interview.
It all began when his science editor asked him to “check out a couple of companies that may be developing a vaccine”.
Miller got in touch with Ugur ŞSahin, the husband half of the spouse founders of BioNTech.
ŞSahin is an idealistic and somewhat eccentric immunologist who owns neither car, nor TV.
He had eerily predicted the pandemic when the virus was still just a tiny blip on the radar. His science-based foresight steered BioNTech to develop a vaccine long before the world even knew they’d need one.
In the book, Miller details how Sahin struggled to get the pharma powers that be to board his vaccine ark so BioNTech sailed solo until the rest of the science fraternity caught up.
More than just the story of the vaccine, the book also tells the story of ŞSahin and his wife, fellow immunologist Özlem Türeci, and the two independent medical technological companies they founded.
Initially, the Turkish-German medics were ugly ducklings in the field; researching a highly unstable, overlooked molecule while gathering a Robin Hood-like posse of peers and side-stepping disasters that sank similar start-ups.
One such side-step was a massive bailout by their very own fairy godmothers − billionaire brothers who, on a hunch, backed BioNTech with some small change − a few hundred million. The couple then pursued their core passion − tailored cancer vaccines − which the science fraternity considered a fantasy.
Decades of research later the unorthodox technologies they developed were exactly what was needed to combat Covid-19.
This book is a fascinating but complicated read.
It is full of science and jargon but Miller does a good job of simplifying difficult concepts, often using amusing metaphors.
Even vaccine detractors would find this book interesting because it does not shy away from recent history’s vaccine failures, some of which were dire.
This book answers all the questions that have been plaguing social media since the vaccines were first declared safe for human use.