When a Vaccine Speaks Volumes: What the BioNTech Story Tells Us about Migration, Integration and Discrimination
Gülay Türkmen 18 November 2020

When Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech shared the news last week that they have finally developed a much-awaited COVID-19 vaccine with 90% effectiveness, many breathed a sigh of relief. The scientific debate about the vaccine, however, was soon sidelined. Immediately after it was discovered that the co-founders of BioNTech, oncologists Dr. Özlem Türeci and Prof. Uğur Şahin, were children of migrants from Turkey, the axis of the debate shifted to the lingering questions about migration, integration, diversity, and discrimination in Germany (and beyond). Many German and international outlets have started focusing on the biographies of the two scientists, rather than their scientific findings, putting their “immigration background” at the heart of their narratives.

According to 2019 data by Germany’s Federal Statistical Office, “people with immigration background” [migrationshintergrund]—a disputed category used by German authorities to denote a person who did not acquire German citizenship by birth or who has at least one parent who did not acquire German citizenship by birth—make up 26% of Germany’s overall population of 83.1 million. Among these, migrants from Turkey constitute the largest group, with their official number standing at 2.824.000 as of 2019. As I explained in an earlier piece for ResetDOC, there have been numerous migration waves from Turkey to Germany. Türeci and Şahin’s parents belong to the first wave, which took place in the 1960s. Türeci’s father was a medical doctor from İstanbul, while Şahin’s father worked at the Ford factory in Cologne. Türeci was born in Germany. Şahin moved to the country as a 4-year-old from İskenderun, a city in southern Turkey, to join his gastarbeiter (guest worker) father.


Pride or prejudice?

In the days following the announcement of the vaccine, Türeci and Şahin’s multiple identities instigated different reactions. In Turkey, where the mainstream media portrayed Türeci and Şahin as “the Turks behind the vaccine”, the dominant emotion was pride. Some leftists and other oppositional groups, however, criticized this ethno-centric narrative. They argued that Turkey and/or Turks could not lay claim to Türeci and Şahin’s success as both were raised and educated in Germany, and made use of German resources in their research. As such, their Turkishness had no role to play in this story, other than the mere coincidence that their parents happen to come from Turkey (note that Türeci defines herself as a Prussian-Turk).

Moreover, some claimed, had Türeci and Şahin stayed in Turkey they would not have been able to come up with the vaccine as the curtailment of academic freedoms and the increasingly repressive political atmosphere have seriously impaired research activities in the country. Some social media users drew an analogy between the discrimination immigrants from Turkey in Germany and immigrants from Syria in Turkey face. Yet another criticism concerned gender discrimination and the sexist reporting in some Turkish media outlets, which showcased Uğur Şahin as the sole “inventor of the vaccine”, denigrating Özlem Türeci to merely being “Şahin’s wife”.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Türeci and Şahin have been treated as the poster children of a successful integration story: featured as the “good immigrants,” role models to look up to. Focus called the couple’s achievement “an unusual success story” and suggested that they could be seen as “a shining example of successful integration.”

According to this narrative, theirs was a “success story” in two ways. On the one hand, it was the success of the children of immigrants, especially of gastarbeiters (embodied by Uğur Şahin) who were, for a long time, looked down upon in Germany as manual laborers with little education. Juxtaposing the career paths of Türeci and Şahin with that of other immigrant children, a BILD columnist wrote: “Some immigrant children become soccer players, some become scientists.” He continued: “Our world can be saved (…) By migrant children.” Similarly, the Rheinische Post emphasized the immigration- and working class-background of Şahin in its headline: “From a guest worker’s child to world saver.” (In this story too, Türeci made an appearance as “Şahin’s wife”). Der Tagesspiegel had a similar headline: “From immigrant children to multi-billionaires.”

On the other hand, some saw it as the success of the German system, which (they believe) is welcoming to immigrants and provides them with the opportunity to thrive and shine. Using this case as an opportunity to argue against the nativist discourse of radical right-wing groups, Johannes Vogel, a Free Democratic Party politician sitting in the Bundestag since 2017, tweeted: “If it were up to the AfD, there would be no BioNTech of Germany with Özlem Türeci & Uğur Şahin at the top. (…) But that is what makes us strong: immigration country, market economy and open society.”


Reality check

In reality, though, both Germany’s educational system and its labour market are characterized by an unlevel playing field that puts immigrants at a disadvantaged position. For example, in a 2013 article, Maresa Sprietsma documents the discrimination in grading against students of Turkish origin by some primary school teachers in Germany. After randomly assigning Turkish or German first names to a set of essays, she finds that “the same essays obtain significantly worse grades and lower secondary school recommendations when bearing a Turkish sounding name.” In a similar study published in 2020, Sebastian Wenz and Kerstin Hoenig do not find any discrimination in grading. Yet, their findings for teacher’s expectations of children’s future performance suggest a discriminatory bias along the lines of both ethnicity and social class.

Similarly, in a 2011 article, Leo Kaas and Christian Manger focus on ethnic discrimination in Germany’s labour market. They “send two similar applications to each of 528 advertisements for student internships, one with a Turkish‐sounding and one with a German‐sounding name.” They find that “a German name raises the average probability of a callback by about 14%.” In smaller firms, the applicant with the German name receives 24% more callbacks. There is a caveat though. “Discrimination disappears when we restrict our sample to applications including reference letters which contain favourable information about the candidate’s personality”, Kaas and Manger write.


Accidental heroes

Such a reference was what changed the course of Uğur Şahin’s educational path. According to a 2014 interview with Şahin, his elementary school teacher wanted him to enroll at the Hauptschule (vocational school) and it was only thanks to a German neighbour’s favourable intervention that he was accepted to Gymnasium, which provided him with the opportunity to continue his studies at a university. “Be that neighbor”, tweeted Christian Odendahl, chief economist at the Center for European Reform.[1] While such neighbors and acquaintances definitely deserve acknowledgement for their help and support, this story also demonstrates that a system where the fate of immigrants lies in the hands of well-meaning neighbors is a system that needs urgent fixing. Sadly, good intentions and individual efforts do not suffice in the fight against structural discrimination and racism. They are valuable but they do not bring long-lasting change. By helping to mask the existing inequalities they might even delay the structural reforms that need to be undertaken. What is needed is an organized effort by politicians, media and the civil society to tackle the inequalities and discrimination immigrants have to deal with in Germany (and beyond).

As well intentioned the attempt to portray Türeci and Şahin as inspiring role models may be, such an attitude unfortunately puts the responsibility solely on immigrants’ shoulders. By presenting a narrative in which Türeci and Şahin have “succeeded”, either thanks to or despite the existing system, the message that’s given to immigrants is “if they could do it, so could you; all you need is hard work and perseverance!” In an interview with Philip Oltermann, published in the Guardian on November 12th, Uğur Şahin argues against the role model narrative in the following words: “I am not sure I really want that. I think we need a global vision that gives everyone an equal chance. Intelligence is equally distributed across all ethnicities, that’s what all the studies show. As a society we have to ask ourselves how we can give everyone a chance to contribute to society. I am an accidental example of someone with a migration background. I could have equally been German or Spanish.”

Şahin is right: we do need a global vision that gives everyone an equal chance. Yet, if we are to talk about equality, we need to make sure that immigrants are given an equal chance not only to succeed but also to fail. Otherwise, imposing on immigrants the requirement to succeed will just reproduce conditional acceptance, where only immigrants deemed to be “successful” are embraced by the receiving society while others are not. It is time we start believing in a future where immigrants’ acceptance will not depend on their academic and labor market performance but rather on the simple fact that they, like all of us, are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect [2] .


[1] While this story about the “supportive neighbor” made rounds on social media, accompanied with a quote attributed to Şahin, Odendahl added that his attempts to verify the quote were unsuccessful. After an extensive search, I ran across the link to the 2014 interview (provided above).

[2] The author thanks Elisabeth Becker for her helpful edits on an earlier version of this piece.


Gülay Türkmen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Sociology. Her work examines how macro-scale historical, cultural and political developments inform questions of belonging and identity-formation in multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. She is the author of  Under the Banner of Islam? Turks, Kurds and the Limits of Religious Unity (OUP, 2021). She has published in several academic outlets including the Annual Review of  Sociology, Qualitative SociologySociological Quarterly, and Nations and Nationalism.


Cover Photo: BioNTech co-founders, Dr. Uğur Şahin and Prof. Özlem Türeci (Ennoti / Flickr)

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