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Pfizer and BioNTech in profile: The companies behind the Covid-19 vaccine

By Alexander Britton, PA
·2-min read

The partnership behind the breakthrough in finding a Covid-19 vaccine features a 171-year-old titan of the pharmaceutical industry and a biotechnology firm founded just 12 years ago.

And the histories of both American giant Pfizer and German company BioNTech started with the drive for 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.

It went on to help the Union Army in the US as demands for painkillers and disinfectants grew during the Civil War.

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.

One of its most notable drugs, erectile dysfunction medication Viagra, was discovered in 1989 and approved in 1998, with its success leading 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 £69 billion 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 £9.8 billion.

Viagra Connect
Viagra, one of Pfizer’s most notable drugs, was approved in 1998 (Pfizer/PA)

Meanwhile, in Mainz, Germany, BioNTech chief executive Professor Ugur Sahin, alongside his wife and the firm’s chief medical officer, Dr Uzlem Tureci, were striving to pioneer cancer immunotherapies tailored to individual patients.

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.

While the couple, who both have Turkish heritage, are said to be worth billions, Prof Sahin still reportedly cycles to work.

On their wedding day in 2002, according to reports, the pair only briefly left their work at the lab to attend the register office