ATHENS - Greece and Turkey have long been at loggerheads over a host of issues – from a scattering of uninhabited islands in the Aegean Sea that divide them, to the origins of souvlaki.
Now, they are trading jabs anew, this time trying to trump each other’s claims to Pfizer’s creation of what may be the world’s first demonstrably effective coronavirus vaccine.
Since the company’s announcement earlier this week, media and medical experts from around the globe have hailed the drug’s pioneers, Dr. Ozlem Tureci and Dr. Ugur Sahin, as heroes.
While both scientists are children of Turkish migrants who moved to Germany as part of the first guest worker generation in the late 1960s, the pair founded BioNTech in 2008 to develop new types of targeted cancer treatments.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread earlier this year, BioNTech, which employs 1,300 people, quickly moved to reallocate its resources, teaming up with the U.S. pharmacy industry giant Pfizer to develop 20 candidates for a vaccine.
As the world this week breathed a sigh of relief at news that one of the experimental vaccines had shown results, Turkey, like perhaps no other state, went into a frenzy.
Since the revelation, Turkish news media have splashed pictures and praise of the “Turkish dream team” on the fronts of newspapers, magazines and websites. Politicians have praised them for contributing to humanity. Even teachers across the nation are said to be aggressively lecturing students about what is being described as the great Turkish feat.
On the other side of the Aegean divide, though, Greeks are giving scant coverage and little praise to the scientific duo, largely referring to them as Germans, rather than Turkish nationals.
Pundits, press and politicians have instead taken to rejoicing their own national success: Albert Bourla, the Greek veterinarian at the helm of Pfizer and his strategy of striking a deal with BioNTech to produce and globally distribute the landmark drug.
“A Greek yields hope of a breakthrough,” shouted the Athens-based Skai television network, featuring reports and special segments about Bourla and his rise from the humble origins in Thessaloniki, northern Greece.
“The Greek who steers Pfizer,” blared the Capital.gr news site, as politicians across the divide posted pictures and praises for the leading Greek executive, fanning web chatter that the small and poor country, in the throes of a tragic COVID-19 comeback, would be the first to receive samples of the vaccine.
Having joined Pzifer’s animal-health division in 1993, Bourla became the company’s chief executive last year, striking a string of successful deals. In the first nine months of his tenure, he refocused the company toward patent-protected drugs and vaccines with the potential for significant sales growth.
The drug maker’s announcement this week triggered a surge in BioNTech's stock, pushing the company’s shares up by 23.4%, and rallying markets globally.
BioNTech and Pfizer had been working together on a flu vaccine since 2018, but they agreed to collaborate on a coronavirus vaccine in March.
Both sides left politics and age-old rivalries aside, bonding more over their shared backgrounds as scientists and immigrants.
“We realized that he is from Greece, and I’m from Turkey,” Sahin said in a recent interview, avoiding mention of their native countries’ long-running antagonism. “It was very personal from the beginning.”
While both NATO allies, Greece and Turkey have been at odds over air, sea and land rights for decades. They came to the brink of war in September before Washington waded into a standoff in the eastern Mediterranean, urging Ankara to recall a vessel exploring for energy off the coast of a Greek island.
EU and U.S. diplomats have long tried to bridge the Greek-Turkish divide and build trust between the two sides through business. A major thawing of relations in 1999 saw trade between the two countries soar while cultural barriers eroded dramatically.
Whether the Pfizer and BioNTech cooperation on good science can serve as a catalyst for improved Greek-Turkish relations remains unclear, pundits and politicians quip on both sides. For now, though, the rivalries seem to have no impact on Pfizer’s collaboration with BioNtech.
“He’s a scientist and a man of principles,” Bourla said of Sahin, in a recent interview. “I trust him 100%.”