How a Turkish-German Couple Invented a Coronavirus Vaccine

By now it is largely known that a Turkish-German husband and wife team are the frontrunners in the race to market a vaccine against the coronavirus. This is an extraordinary achievement for the Turkish-born Ugur Sahin who is the CEO of a German biotech firm called BioNTech. He co-founded the company with his wife and fellow board member Özlem Türeci as well as his former teacher, Prof Christoph Huber, who is an Austrian cancer expert. While thousands of right-wing German conspiracy theorists marched on German streets protesting against Merkel’s Coronavirus measures furnished with their tinfoil hats, two Turkish-Germans were busy saving their lives.

The vaccine success of Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci – both with Turkish roots – is fuelling a new diversity discussion in Germany. In today’s Germany, women and men with a migrant background are still disadvantaged. This is supported by Germany’s right-wing press along with the infamous right-wing tabloid the Bild Zeitung being one of the key favourites when it comes to decades of racial abuse fired towards anyone non-German looking.

Despite the daily racism, institutional xenophobia, and a rightist press of substantial proportions, the path of Ugur Sahin marks a human and an entrepreneurial success that cannot be seen without German racism. Suddenly, the pair is presented in a glorious light even by Germany’s staunchly conservative press. Ugur Sahin and his wife Özlem Türeci are pushed into the spotlight having produced Germany’s vaccine against the coronavirus as stock prices exploded, and congratulations poured in from around the world.

The rise to explorer superstars has not been sung by the two of them. The professor of medicine at the University of Mainz is the son of a Turkish Ford car factory worker. Born in Iskenderun, Sahin came to Germany at the age of four. His wife, who serves as the chief medical officer at the cancer research company BioNTech, was also born into a migrant family. Her father worked as a medical doctor in Istanbul and later in a small clinic in the north German city of Cloppenburg. With their first company Ganymede, which they sold in 2016 for a total of 1.4 billion euros, the physicians Sahin and Türeci had already set new standards in cancer research. With BioNTech, they finally entered the pinnacle of medical research.

The history of the two founders is one of the few exceptional examples of an integration of migrant creating a successful career in Germany despite rampant anti-Turkish sentiments. Almost sixty years after the arrival of what Germans euphemistically label “guest workers”, Sahin and Türeci are still the exceptions to the rule. Sahin’s father, like many migrants to Germany, was not treated as guests. Instead, Turks were mistreated as cheap labour and abused as “dirty Turks”. Sahin and Türeci success are by no means self-evident. Instead, it is a sign that – against the odds – Sahin and Türeci have achieved the unimaginable. It is in science where Sahin and Türeci first made their way.

Discrimination in Germany

The shining example of Sahin and Türeci, therefore, rekindled a debate that had already gained a new dynamism this year largely sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. The lives of Sahin and Türeci remains a life defined by racism and unequal opportunities in Germany. Germany and the Germans do not have a good record when it comes to dealing with migrants. After a more or less – actually, rather less than more! – discussion during the past years, the topic of migration, racism, discrimination, multiculturalism, diversity is now discussed broadly as it was actually intended. After all, at its core, it is about social, civil and political participation and a fairer distribution of power in a neoliberal economy – if this is at all possible.

In fact, one of the week’s most important news stories is primarily about the discovery of a promising coronavirus vaccine. Still, it is not irrelevant which researchers are responsible for the new vaccine. It is the physicians Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci. Their Turkish background is the reason why in Germany’s right-wing tabloids and perhaps even more so in the echo-chambers of the so-called “social” media, they are, at times, framed as Germans. Others try to nullify their success and their importance as part of the standard anti-Turkish abuse metred out on a daily basis. Suddenly, the discovery of a vaccine has been told as a story of successful integration often without the much-needed reflection of the dehumanisation non-Germans experience in Germany.


The immigration story and the origins of both Sahin and Türeci are now presented in German media. The current story is, of course, framed as an “individual” history. It is present as a personal story of two migrants. In the standard media coverage, one can see how quickly some people and Germany’s corporate media acquired a new level of simplification. The current narrative is about impeccable immigrant explorers to fill Germans with a kind of self-projected pride. Depending on where you are in terms of identity politics, the success of Sahin and Türeci is a euphoric identification:

+ Turkish people living in Germany are present as proud because the pair of scientists have Turkish roots.

+ Germans are proud too because Germans produced the active ingredient to counter the coronavirus, in a German company.

+ Women are proud because half of the discovery was made by at least one woman.

+ Germany’s civil society is proud because it has – more or less successfully – countered the right.

But in all these appropriations, the two were abstracted on aspects of their personalities and turned into trophies for someone else’s self-assurance. Yet, the stunning success of two non-German people is evident in the fight against racism. They represent a not insignificant triumph against Germany’s right-wing extremists such as those in the right-wing extremist party, the AfD. Nevertheless, many Germans have observed – with satisfaction – that the success of Sahin and Türeci is a success against the far-right AfD sitting in the Bundestag – Germany’s parliament. In this fight, Sahin and Türeci are the living humanity that encompasses all people. Sahin and Türeci exemplify that German society can counter racist discrimination and insults. It challenges the right-wing’s narrative of a Volksgemeinschaft. The triumph of Germans with Turkish parents demonstrates to Germany’s Neo-Nazis that their racism is not constructive.

In adjacent discourses, this has been called respectability in politics. L’idée fixe behind this balderdash is that if marginalised people only adapt sufficiently, the problem of discrimination will solve itself. However, this l’idée fixe ignores the power of political, economic, structural, and institutionalised forms of discrimination. Discriminatory powers continue to define Germany’s economy, its education, its politics, its administration, and its legal system.

Yet, the politics of respectability is the stubborn misbelief that racists would suddenly make a dramatic change of heart and give up their racist attitude if non-white people simply improve, dress better, and behave appropriately. Their enthusiasm is a form of ideological self-assurance. Meanwhile, racial hatred is misperceived as just and perhaps even noble. Unfortunately, much of this also reveals a still existing but also deeply internalised perception of what is labelled as “successful integration” – often determined not through humanity but through economic utility. In this ideology, someone who has achieved outstanding things and is seen as economically strong has successfully integrated, so it is claimed. The problem in the case of the vaccine is not the appreciation of its incredible importance. Still, for Germany’s right-wing, it is the link between public appreciation and a migration background.

Recognition, coupled with economic success, pits underprivileged groups against each other. It sets those who are economically successful against those who are prevented by racist structures to achieve a middle-class existence. It also promotes the implicit ideology that people will assimilate socially and economically in a rather Borg-like fashion. In the eyes of Germany’s right, this is what distinguishes a “good” from “bad” migrant. Of course, the very concept of a monolithic assimilation model is utterly absurd and smacks of the Volksgemeinschaft.

And above all, the hallucinations of Germany’s right-wing raises the inevitable question: integrated into what? Still, the entire ideological frame of Germany’s right-wing is at odds with a heterogeneous social structure as well as the demographics of Germany. Beyond that, the Aryan nightmare of Germany’s right contradicts the immigration history that began during the mid-1950s when Germany’s capitalist actively recruited foreign labour. Today’s Germany is characterised by the fact that its society depicts a level of heterogeneity that Germany’s right profoundly detests.

At the same time, the assimilation ideology pretends that only economically successful people are well integrated. But Germany also has many low-income people with a history of migration. These are taxi drivers, nurses, delivery drivers, construction workers, Amazon workers, assembly line workers, cleaners, etc. In short, they form a significant part of Germany’s precariat despite the beliefs by German officialdom and Germany’s right-wing extremists that the non-German precariat is well integrated. They speak their native tongue and German, they identify with the Basic Law (Germany’s constitution), they live in Germany, and pay taxes like everyone else.

However, their achievements hardly make the headlines of Germany’s corporate media and even less so in Germany’s right-wing tabloids. Ordinary migrants do not seem to be a prime example of a so-called “successful integration”. Funnily, Germans would hardly say to a white taxi driver that he is not well integrated into German society because he is “only” a taxi driver! Yet, taxi drivers with a migrant background are taught just that when compared to a “high-performer” and “super-immigrant” star researchers who came up with a Coronavirus vaccine. Capitalism defines a person’s value, i.e. usefulness to the industry – not the humanness of a person. Those not useful to capital are rejected. One can already imagine the madmen of the anti-vaccination league rejecting the coronavirus vaccine because two Turkish people invented it.

Those who deliberately link economic success to migration serve the neoliberal ideology that supports immigration as long as it serves capital. Worse, Germany’s right-wing believes one must earn one’s Germanness. In their minds, any positive notion of immigration is associated with hard-working people, i.e. being useful to capital. Those useful migrants must be resilient even in adverse situations. They have to work diligently fulfilling “their” duty which is never “their” duty, but a duty invented by their bosses. And they must bring a pioneering spirit with them – something the ideologies of Managerialism call entrepreneurship.

In their eternal effort to eliminate Marx’s class, such characterisations attribute the economic success of immigration to individualistic qualities. In short, the mythmaking of neoliberalism continues. As a consequence, the social model of the status quo and with it, capitalism is consolidated. Cemented is the ideology that everyone is solely responsible for their personal happiness and can be held responsible for those convenient positions above them in a hierarchical society defined by structural violence. Accordingly, everyone is to blame if the ascent does not succeed. This ultimately ignores the systemic and above all, racist barriers that immigrants encounter in their efforts at integration.

The inspiring ascension stories easily obscure the problems of structural discrimination and inequality of opportunity. This is part of an ideology that engineers system stabilising propaganda. For that, Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci are turned into positive examples. It comes thick and fast when neoliberal dreamers push “anecdotal evidence” even though anecdotes are not evidence. They are anecdotes! Still, the euphemism of anecdotal evidence assures the ideology that everyone-can-have-success-if-one-will. Even more obscenely, this is presented as proof that discrimination and inequality do not exist. The calling is: Look! They did it.

Almost unavoidably, successful people with a history of migration will always be instrumentalised by those in power as evidence of the permeability of society. Ideologically, it shows that despite society’s hardening structures, they have made it. There still is a kind of Kamala-Harris effect.

Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin have developed a vaccine against coronavirus. Germany’s over-the-top pride was quickly followed by irritation. In some ways, being proud of something someone else has done is at least strange. Such a pride becomes outright dangerous when people feel it with reference to an imagined community: national pride can easily spread nationalism, and with that chauvinism and racism heightens. Still, pride can have something to do with a local community – however, it must not be aggressive, narcissistic and hostile.

Yet, many iterations of pride remains. Thankfully, most young Germans would reject the notion of “being proud to be German”. Still, the cultural origins of the two researchers were of great interest to others. German headlines read, from guest worker child to world saviour (Rheinische Post) and from immigrant children to multi-billionaire (Tagesspiegel). Many newspapers told a successful migration story with headlines like the world is talking about the two Turks who saved humanity.

On the upswing, excited and even dazzling speeches on social media complemented the media coverage. Some saw the news as proof that multiculturalism had not failed. Others tweeted it as a spike against the AfD. Not too long ago, the AfD demanded that German Turks had to be disposed of in Anatolia. As recently as a few weeks ago, there were other heroes to celebrate. Three young men with Turkish and Palestinian roots had helped a woman and a policeman in the Islamist terrorist attack in Vienna. The international press celebrated it. As much as Germans celebrate the success of Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, nationalism, and even Neo-Nazism are not dead in Germany.