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INTERNATIONAL PERSON OF THE YEAR

Winner: The two doctors who made a Covid breakthrough; Runners-up: Elon Musk & Greta Thunberg

Dr Uğur Şahin, CEO of BioNTech, and his wife, Dr Özlem Türeci, its co-founder and chief medical officer. (Photo: EPA-EFE / BERND VON JUTRCZENKA / POOL)

They created the first Covid-19 vaccine, 11 months after the pandemic began. Dr Uğur Şahin, CEO of BioNTech, and his wife, Dr Özlem Türeci, its co-founder and chief medical officer, were voted by Daily Maverick’s readers as its International People of the Year.

Their continuing fight against cancer and the research into the next generation immunotherapy to cure it brought a Covid-19 breakthrough moment. It was a true marriage of years of scientific endeavour and like-minded personalities that led Uğur Şahin (56) and Özlem Türeci (54) on to this path.

Both scientists are the children of Turkish migrants who moved to Germany in the late 1960s. The couple met when Şahin was working at the Saarland University Hospital and Türeci was completing her final year of medical studies.

More than 30 years ago, they were already interested in cancer treatment and immunology, which was eventually the path to the successful Covid-19 vaccine.

“Patient care and science” were important to both and they were “haunted by the same dilemma that there was not much we could offer to our cancer patients… One of our shared missions was to bring science and technology fast to the patients – fast is the important word here – to patients’ bedsides,” said Türeci in a TED Talk.

In 2001 they founded their first company Ganymed – which means, roughly translated from a Turkish expression, “earned through hard work”.  

The company, which pioneered precision antibody therapies against cancer, was sold for $1.4 billion in 2016. In 2008, they founded BioNTech, short for Biopharmaceutical New Technologies, focusing on using genetic material – messenger RNA (mRNA) – to train the human body to produce its own antigens.

“It is like we had a plane to fly, but we never used it to fly for infectious diseases,” Şahin told the Atlantic Council, with reference to the mRNA technology. The idea behind mRNA technology for cancer patients is to obtain the patient’s genetic information and then make a personalised vaccine as fast as possible.

However, when Covid-19 came along, they realised that, because the genome of the virus was known, they could make a vaccine that could engineer an immune response.

Their first major accomplishment years ago was the ability to protect and optimise the vulnerable mRNA molecule, leading to an exponential increase in its stability.

More than 10 years ago, the couple also met a great pioneer in mRNA technology, Dr Katalin Kariko, “a Hungarian-born scientist shunned by superiors at the University of Pennsylvania, whose patented innovation was used as the basis for the successful Covid-19 vaccine,” according to an article in the Financial Times.

The day after Şahin had read for the first time about the virus in The Lancet in January 2020, he decided they would try to find a vaccine, and within a month they had identified 20 vaccine candidates. Those on leave had to cancel their holiday plans. “There were so many unknowns, we had to put a couple of horses in the race,” he added, referring to the vaccine candidates.

The couple called the project to develop the vaccine Project Lightspeed, “because one can’t go faster than light”, Türeci told Sky News.

They had the knowledge to do the research, but not the capacity to manufacture and distribute it worldwide, because they received no government funding. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which has previously collaborated with BioNTech on a flu vaccine, was quickly convinced to help with development and distribution costs, according to an article in The Guardian.

In early December 2020, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine became the first in the world to receive emergency approval for use. Within two weeks, the first countries started to vaccinate their populations. Known commercially as Comirnaty, the clinical trials showed it is more than 90% effective. “We will, very calmly, be able to prepare for the fact that the vaccine might have to be adapted to new virus mutations every two years,” Şahin recently told Deutsche Welle.

The past year can be described in one word for them: “Breathless”, said Türeci at a TED conference. The success has given them the opportunity to expand and further invest in technology to treat cancer and other diseases.

“Working together is a symbiosis, that is the secret to why it is working so nicely. We have complementary skills… We have the same values and standards,” said Türeci. “We don’t really see what we do as work, it is really part of our life. It is a wonderful chance to share this passion with my partner,” Şahin told the Atlantic Council.

As a result of the company’s increase in value, Şahin and Türeci became the first Germans with Turkish roots among Germany’s 100 wealthiest people. They were already multibillionaires in June last year. It is a long way from Şahin’s father, who worked in a Ford factory in Cologne.

Türeci’s mother was a biologist. Her father, a medical doctor, was from Istanbul and worked at the Catholic hospital St Elisabeth-Stift in Lastrup, Germany. As a child she was greatly influenced by the care the nuns gave to patients at the hospital, and considered becoming one herself, but watching her father work created a love for healing.

When they received the data from Pfizer on a Sunday, more than a year ago, that the vaccine is so effective, it was an “unbelievable moment, we felt blessed”.

Only a handful of people knew at that moment there was an effective vaccine against a global pandemic. They celebrated while in lockdown, and treated themselves with “a cup of tea”, said Türeci. The next day they shared the information, according to the Atlantic Council.

It is true that on the day of their wedding in 2002, they went back to work in their laboratory after the short ceremony. That says it all about a couple who are scientists, leaders and entrepreneurs. And Şahin still bicycles to work, dressed in jeans. DM168

Tesla CEO Elon Musk. (Photo: Patrick Pleul – Pool / Getty Images)

RUNNER-UP: ELON MUSK

Elon Musk is the entrepreneur-genius who, this year, played a major role in reshaping humanity’s entry into space. In a sector that has been an extraordinarily complex, expensive endeavour, Musk has successfully upended previous preconceptions.

Despite tongue-clucking by the experts, Musk has willed into being a commercially viable, privately manufactured, fully reusable space craft. In the past year, it has carried supplies and crew members to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA, and its booster rocket returned safely to its launch pad to be prepared for future flights, with the whole adventure broadcast live.

He is now starting to plan for a craft that will reach and return safely from Mars. Why? As Musk says: “We don’t want to be one of those single-planet species; we want to be a multi-planet species.” That is vision, big time.

 But the technological audacity of Musk’s company is leaving his critics gasping. By contrast, Musk’s two billionaire space competitors, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, have only succeeded in launching suborbital flights for rich tourists and guests.

South African-born Musk made a splash with his first major business, PayPal — the online payment system. Having sold that company, he turned his attention to electrically powered passenger and freight vehicles, autonomously driven vehicles — and space, his newest frontier. DM168

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. (Photo: EPA-EFE / CLEMENS BILAN)

RUNNER-UP: GRETA THUNBERG

Sometimes it takes a child — or at least a teenager — to lead us. For decades, the public discussion and debate about global climate change has largely been the province of either climate scientists, meteorologists and geologists — or politicians, policy analysts and foreign ministry types.

But now, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, coping with the complexities and intensities of Asperger’s Syndrome (a circumstance she calls her “superpower”), has become a first magnitude star in the climate change firmament.

Including her words in this year’s COP26 meeting in Scotland, Thunberg achieved something extraordinary: she has almost single-handedly reshaped the global discussion on climate change.

Instead of it largely remaining the arena of the professionals, Thunberg’s intensity has shone a bright light on the looming crisis, and helped to make the circumstances of global climate change and the necessity for action easier to grasp by everyone.

Moreover, her efforts have helped to re-energise young people worldwide into seizing on this challenge as their issue. Unlike all the old men and women in suits in their negotiations, Thunberg has made certain it is understood that, as climate change reshapes the world, it will be young people who will be the ones who will inherit this Earth and have to deal with the consequences. DM168

Daily Maverick Persons of the Year

Every year, Daily Maverick puts its mind to the question of who we should recognise in our annual Persons of the Year categories.

In the past, these decisions have been made after a bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but this year, we decided to do things a little differently. We had the bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but simply to arrive at a shortlist of nominees in each category. Using a new reader engagement tool called Hearken, we asked our online readers to cast their votes on who they think deserves the final nod. We also gave readers the option to choose their own candidate in any category in case they thought we had neglected anyone more worthy. The results were both expected and surprising.

On the whole, readers agreed with our shortlisted candidates, with a few exceptions. We had not considered Greta Thunberg as a candidate for International Person of the Year, but so many readers nominated her that she earned enough mentions to be a runner-up in that category.

Many objected to us only focusing on singers for our Artist of the Year and objected to the predominance of foreign singers in the category. Quite a few readers were critical of us leaving out African women and female contenders in general.

The journalists at Daily Maverick were mentioned several times as nominees for different categories of People of the Year – ah, thanks for the love, guys, but this time around we wanted to cast our net outside our inner circle.

The more than 800 readers who voted totally exceeded our expectations, because this was the first time we have opened People of the Year to readers’ votes.

The pie chart shows how readers voted for the International Person of the Year.

Below are the categories. Read about the winners and runners-up in various categories below.

  • South African Person of the Year – a person who has had the broadest or most significant impact on the country as a whole.
  • Africa Person of the Year – a person who has made an outstanding contribution on the African continent this year.
  • International Person of the Year – a person who has had broad international impact or made an outstanding contribution this year.
  • South African Villain of the Year – there was no shortage of suggestions in this self-explanatory category…
  • International Villain of the Year – as above, but drawn from foreign fields.
  • South African Businessperson of the Year – not necessarily the person who made the biggest profit, but someone whose influence went beyond the balance sheets.
  • Community Champion of the Year – someone uplifting, defending and representing ordinary South Africans, often against all odds.
  • South African Polluter of the Year – individuals and entities which have succeeded in further dirtying our environment this year.
  • Our Burning Planet Heroes of the Year – the green warriors fighting for our planet’s survival.
  • South African Youth Champion of the Year – young people working to improve the lot of other young people.
  • Sportsperson of the Year – a sportsperson whose positive impact has been felt either on or off the field.
  • Sports Team of the Year – a team that has stood out from the rest in 2021 either on or off the field.
  • Artist of the Year – a hitmaker whose musical or social influence has towered above others.
  • Moegoe of the Year – someone whose behaviour perhaps falls short of Villain of the Year, but who has in some way acted idiotically.
  • Grinch of the Year – someone who qualifies as a spoilsport or killjoy. – Rebecca Davis/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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