Her Excellency, the President of the Hellenic Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou,
Mr Prime Minister van Rompuy
Esteemed representatives of the Theophano Foundation,
Most esteemed guests,
We’d like to thank the Theophano Foundation from the bottom of our hearts for recognizing our work.
We are deeply honored to receive the award today. The award recognizes the development of mRNA technology and its rapid translation into a vaccine to combat a global pandemic and improve the lives of people around the world.
We must share this recognition with multiple generations of researchers who have contributed to understanding mRNA, improving it, and learning how to apply it.
As with any breakthrough innovation, it is the confluence of many efforts that has allowed the practical use of mRNA technology as a powerful tool in the service of humanity – at a time of most dire need.
We thank our incredible team at BioNTech for overcoming the multi-facetted scientific and non-scientific challenges in this race against the pandemic, a race that we named Project Lightspeed to reflect the urgency with which we have all worked.
We thank our esteemed friend Albert Bourla and his extraordinary team at Pfizer for being our partners. From the inception of our partnership, you have wholeheartedly committed to our shared mantra: No one will be safe until everyone is safe, across nations, ethnicities, and economies. We also thank all our collaborators, who contribute to what has now become a broad network with 20 sites for supplying vaccines to the world – a network we are extending into LIMC.
This day, this award, is about recognizing that the most noble purpose of science is to serve humanity – first and foremost
This day is about honoring science and technology making a difference by driving innovation.
It is a great privilege to be part of today’s magnificent award ceremony. And to be here in person.
This is our first time in Thessaloniki. We are thoroughly enjoying this wonderful country, this vibrant place and the company of warm-hearted people, who have welcomed us so hospitably.
Since we entered this picturesque city, we feel the strong presence of the patroness of this award, Empress Theophano, and we feel immersed in a rich historical heritage.
A heritage that stands for principles, for virtues – that are actually timeless.
The key ingredients for turning science into survival, into health, are not very different from the principles Theophano lived by long ago.
A strong, visionary woman who walked between worlds to bridge them, who acted with courage to make a difference, and who loved science and education.
So, what are the key ingredients for science in the service of humanity?
For Ugur and I, pursuing this grand vision meant becoming wanderers between worlds, 3 worlds: As trained physicians, the patient care is vitally important; as scientists, we are deeply rooted in academia; as entrepreneurs and founders, we are immersed in the biopharma industry and the private sector.
In the 1990s, working at university hospital wards, we too often had to tell our cancer patients that there were no more treatment options for them. At the same time, as scientists, we knew about the enormous potential of science to make a difference – through new immunotherapies and technologies like mRNA, that we pioneered.
We wanted to bring these new treatments from the lab bench to the patient`s bedside.
But we had to learn that research alone couldn’t get to patients, without robust funding and a drug development organization. So, we turned to the private sector. Only to find that early research without clinical evidence was unlikely to be funded. Too early, too risky, too difficult – those were the reactions we experienced. We convinced a handful of private investors – the Strüngmann brothers – who believed in our vision.
In the years that followed, we deepened our understanding of immunology, we researched mRNA, built our mastery of the technology, learned how to manufacture mRNA, and treated hundreds of cancer patients within clinical trials.
In January 2020, when the pandemic broke, we heard the call to action loud and clear – the moral obligation to use our technology, to trust our team’s skills and the skills of our partners at Pfizer – and helped respond to a global crisis of unprecedented scale.
We feel blessed and honored to have been able to contribute – thanks to our maintained identity as wanderers between worlds.
And that’s the first ingredient: it takes a new breed of scientist, deeply rooted in academia and basic research, who understand how to navigate the cutting edge of drug development within a pharmaceutical and industrial framework while never, ever losing sight of the point of care, the patient, the human being.
The second ingredient is courage, which is essential for sustainable, solution-oriented scientific progress. Courage – because it makes you love the unknown.
The search for a COVID-19 vaccine was a quest in uncharted territory, a quest with an unpredictable outcome. To develop something new that better serves humanity, you have to take risks, you have to make bold decisions. Staying on familiar paths, in unchartered terrain is simply not feasible.
True courage, however, always goes hand in hand with humility. As was once said, “Humility means staying teachable, regardless of how much you already know.” And indeed, in the face of this unprecedented global threat, all stakeholders – be it vaccine developers, regulators, public health officials, governments – were open to learn from each other. And we all let science and data be our teachers, even though with a novel virus, knowledge needs time to crystallize, making patience and trust in each other’s words even more important.
For Ugur and I, learning as a path to courage and humility is a lifelong endeavor, as medical doctors, scientists, and entrepreneurs. We have had great mentors along the way – and we are still learning from others every day. Sometimes – like today – we learn by looking back at the wisdom of those who lived many centuries ago.
Moving to the third ingredient that is about partnerships, and collaboration across borders.
The collaboration with Albert and his exceptional organization is a perfect example of this: two parties with complementary skills, yet identical values, a partnership forged on the basis of trust, a bond between hearts – this is a true fete of collaboration
It wasn’t just us. Collaboration between companies, scientists, governments, regulators, even the media, the broader public, has never been more intense, especially here in Europe.
We remember numerous weekend phone calls with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – the laureate for this very prize last year. This global crisis showed that major tasks require trust-based, solution-seeking alliances across public and private sector boundaries.
And indeed, for the two of us, this has been a very special experience. Because Ugur and I founded BioNTech with the dream of changing treatment paradigms AND of contributing to a new model of public-private partnerships, one that enables a new breed of companies to better serve a greater good.
So, let us create public-private ecosystems where togetherness of effort and solidarity is valued high. Strengthening collaboration across all boundaries will remain a critical factor of success,
Because there is still work to be done: expanding manufacturing capacity, improving supply chain conditions, addressing diverse regional health infrastructures and public health policies, and more. AND, most importantly, dealing with the diverse and complex geopolitical, global-ethical, and societal conditions – conditions that have not been properly aligned. The pandemic shone a spotlight on how these frameworks prevent us from acting together. Many of them are not scientific or technological challenges. But realizing that these hurdles are worth overcoming, so that science can reach its full potential – is a powerful motivator for all of us.
Science can – indeed – make a difference at global scale.
But let’s not wait for the next global problem, the next big crisis, to create a sense of urgency.
Let us not wait for a baptism of fire for all the high-potential technologies, the powerful scientific concepts, that already – today – can contribute to the well-being of humanity, the preservation of this planet, and other global challenges of our time.
We can develop solutions that may seem like something out of a science fiction movie today. We can create a better future.
Ugur – now the stage is yours.