All you need to know about the companies behind the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine breakthrough

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The partnership behind the breakthrough in finding a Covid-19 vaccine includes a giant of the pharmaceutical industry and a biotechnology firm founded just 12 years ago.

The histories of both US firm Pfizer and German company BioNTech started with a search to obtain treatments for another scourge of the times – parasitical worms for the former, cancer for the latter.

Charles Pfizer, a migrant from Germany and trained chemist, founded the firm a year after his arrival in New York with cousin Charles Erhart, a confectioner, in 1849.

Their first development, an anti-parasitic called santonin, treated intestinal worms which were common in the United States at the time and went on to help the Union Army as demands for painkillers and disinfectants grew during the Civil War.



How the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine works

Many decades later, Pfizer was the first company to mass-produce penicillin. It is said most of the penicillin carried by soldiers on D-Day was developed by the company.

It also developed one of the world’s most well-known drugs, erectile dysfunction medication Viagra, which was discovered in 1989 and approved in 1998. This success allowed Pfizer to seek to merge with a number of other pharmaceutical companies.

These included US-based Warner-Lambert, Pharmacia and Wyeth, while it made a takeover approach worth £69billion for UK rival AstraZeneca in May 2014, which was rejected.

In 2018, GlaxoSmithKline agreed a tie-up with Pfizer to merge their consumer healthcare divisions to create a business with combined sales of £9.8bn.

BioNTech chief executive Professor Ugur Sahin, and his wife Dr Uzlem Tureci were behind the BioNTech work in Mainz, Germany.

They were striving to pioneer cancer immunotherapies tailored to individual patients when they started work on a Covid-19 vaccine.

Prof Sahin graduated as a doctor from the University of Cologne in 1990 and went on to co-found the firm in 2008, while Dr Tureci earned her MD at the Saarland University Faculty of Medicine in Homburg and is now also the president of the Association for Cancer Immunotherapy.

The couple, who both have Turkish heritage, are said to be worth billions, but Prof Sahin still reportedly cycles to work. On their wedding day in 2002, according to reports, they only briefly left their work to attend the register office



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