“There could be no better choice” – BioNTech founders Özlem Türeci und Uğur Şahin honored with Axel Springer Award

Appreciation of groundbreaking research / Congratulatory messages from around the world, including from Ursula von der Leyen and Benjamin Netanyahu / BILD printing plate dated 12/22/2020 as a present

“It was very clear that there could be no better choice for the Axel Springer Award 2021 than the two founders of BioNTech,” said Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer SE, at the start of the awards ceremony in the new Axel Springer building. Within just eleven months, Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin developed the world’s first vaccine against COVID-19 – giving millions of people back the hope of a free life. On Thursday evening, they were honored with the Axel Springer Award for their groundbreaking research, innovative strength and social responsibility.

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BioNTech founders Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin with the BILD front page printing plate from December 22, 2020 – the day after BioNTech’s vaccine was approved in the EU.© Axel Springer SE

The award ceremony took place in compliance with all hygiene and security measures only in the circle of those directly involved. It was also broadcast via live stream:

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In her acceptance speech, Özlem Türeci said: “This award is a true honor for us, and it is a recognition of our work. However, it is also a recognition for all those who followed this call to action and made the impossible possible – to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year. (…) However, this award is not only about people. It also illustrates that science and the scientific community can truly make a difference. It also illustrates that joining forces is a tool, in particular if executed on every possible level with a sense of joint commitment and with a sense of urgency.”  

In an interview with Mathias Döpfner on stage, the two award winners, who see themselves as “innovators and problem solvers”, spoke about what drives them – and how they read about the cases in Wuhan at their breakfast table in January 2020 and decided to help. When asked how they stay so grounded despite of all their success, Uğur Şahin replied: “We focus on our work. We really love science. We really love working with scientists and trying to find out the truth and coming up with solutions.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/x_m_lZnDm80?feature=oembed

In his laudatory speech the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz described what makes BioNTech so special: “A committed team with world-leading know-how, and two founders who have put their whole heart in this effort and stayed humble in spite of all the success. In a world full of noise and speculation such an attitude is refreshing. And combined with the world-changing results it is extremely impressive.” 

Surprise guest Hans Hengartner, Professor at the Medical Faculty of the University of Zurich and in the Department of Biology at ETH Zurich, who has been a long-time companion of the two laureates, said: “Having an impact on patient’s lives and public health is at the end the greatest gain and holy grail of science. Your dedication and your curiosity combined with the highest ethical standards, your modesty and gratitude make you outstanding scientific leaders.”  

There were congratulatory messages to the award winners from many parts of the world:   

  • Armin Laschet, Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, praised the achievements of the two award winners and emphasized: “Progress is only possible where people live, work and think across borders.”   
  • Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said: “In these times, you are the ones that brought hope to our country, to Europe, to the world. (…) You have become an inspiration to so many people.” 
  • Economist and Axel Springer Award winner Shoshana Zuboff: “Their very example of personhood and principles as scientists and doctors is a vaccine for our spirits inauculating us against complacency when the beauty and power of science and technology are hijacked by megalomania, destruction, and greed.”   
  • Benjamin Netanyahu concluded: “The founders of BioNTech have made history.”  

As a memento of the evening, Mathias Döpfner presented the two laureates with the BILD-title page printing plate from December 22, 2020 – the day after the BioNTech vaccine was approved in the EU.  “The exclusive interview of hope: ‘We have longed for this day’’“ was the headline quoting Uğur Şahin. 

Julia Sommerfeld

Head of Communications News Media International