It is for me a special pleasure to be awarding the Empress Theophano Prize to Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci. Two exceptional scientists who are a couple in life as well as in research, to whom we owe one of the most reliable vaccines; the product of a partnership between BioNTech, of which Uğur Şahin is CEO, and Pfizer. Two great individuals who, after their triumphant success, were quick to state that the fruit of their research was a victory for innovation, science and global collaborative effort. They thus underlined the importance of teamwork, synergy and convergence towards a common goal – the necessary conditions for the development of science, the most “open” human activity, since it is guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, communality, structured scepticism, and focuses on human wellbeing.
The children of Turkish immigrants living in Germany, they grew up in the dynamic space created at the intersection of two cultures – one Mediterranean and one Central European – and collaborated with a Greek from Thessaloniki, Albert Bourla of Pfizer, on the basis of the common principles, values and commitments that inform scientific research. Dedicated to the battle against cancer, that “formless and timeless adversary”, as the father of modern chemotherapy Sidney Farber described it, they worked hard to create a research laboratory that would explore how the immune system could attack cancer cells. And when they found that research funds were hard to come by, they started their own company. Their first company, founded in 2001, they named Ganymed – not after the famous hero of Greek mythology but after a Turkish expression that roughly means “something earned through hard work”. In 2008, they founded BioNTech in collaboration with Austrian oncologist Christoph Huber and from there, they set out to develop immunotherapeutic methods to treat cancer using genetic mRNA material to train the human body to produce its own antigen.
Uğur Şahin first read about Covid-19 in The Lancet on Friday, January 24, 2020 and on Monday, he announced to BioNTech employees that the company would turn its attention to finding a vaccine against coronavirus. And he brought us to where we are today: in possession of a powerful weapon, the first in a series of beneficial vaccines that would be developed thereafter, shielding humanity against the greatest threat the 21st century has thrown at it.
I have recounted the story of Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci’s path to highlight the characteristics that make them so worthy of praise for their promotion and transmission of scientific knowledge: research rigour, a relentless work ethic, constant readiness and alertness, combinational intelligence, stamina, imagination, inventiveness, optimism and, above all, a humanitarian perspective. They participated with all their might in the frantic race of science against the coronavirus, and they came first. Their struggle brings to mind an account by research oncologist, research fellow at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and author Siddhartha Mukherjee, from his seminal book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. The author, wanting to illustrate the speed at which scientists run – a speed directly proportional to their self-sacrifice and dedication – alludes to a quote from Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass: “We are forced to keep running just to keep still. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” That is the speed demonstrated by the Şahin–Türeci duo. And by combining speed and method, knowledge and inspiration, they offered us tangible proof of the wonders that science can do.
It is precisely these qualities that we honour today by awarding them the Empress Theophano Prize. An institution inspired by the contribution of Empress Theophano of the Holy Roman Empire to the spread, both material and spiritual, of Byzantine culture to Saxony in the 10th century AD, the prize has become, in just two years since its establishment, pan-European in prestige and scope. It aspires to promote awareness of the common origins of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, of the historical interdependences of the peoples and nations of Europe and their importance for today’s European cooperation, and to broaden and consolidate Europe’s relations with its neighbouring cultures. To build bridges, to resist contradictions, to contribute to the mutual understanding of the different peoples and cultural characteristics that make up the rich mosaic of Europe and its neighbours. And, at the same time, by recognising the symbolism of Theophano’s ascension to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire following the death of her husband, Otto II, with her dynamic, free-thinking, educated, astute and diplomatic personality, the prize underlines the importance of the equal participation of women in social and political life.
Today, we are honouring an important man and an important woman for their invaluable contribution, and along with them we are honouring their team of scientists, whom they have inspired and guided. We reward their faith, dedication, persistence and courage. Their presence here today assures us that the accumulated knowledge, hard work and self-denial of researchers are the greatest guarantee of protection against Covid-19. The commitment to human life and wellbeing they have so magnificently taken on cancels out the reservations, hesitations, suspicion, fear and even denial of those who insist on not getting vaccinated. Their offer leads us to a future finally free from the uncertainty of the pandemic. We thank them warmly for this.