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Meet the international talent driving the search for the COVID-19 vaccine

COVID-19 vaccine
Pfizer and Moderna are racing to produce the world's first commercial COVID-19 vaccine. Source: Joel Saget/AFP

Immigration has been the bedrock of American innovation for decades. Not only are immigrants carrying out research in labs, but they are also pumping in money to develop new products. In fact, the US has more immigrant investors than every other country combined. It’s no surprise, then, that the companies responsible for developing the COVID-19 vaccine are led by bright minds from beyond the US.

Research suggests that people from a multicultural background are able to constantly switch perspectives, which helps them better identify and hone new ideas. Could this be true for the immigrants leading the search for a COVID-19 vaccine?

Noubar Afeyan, Moderna

COVID-19 vaccine

Noubar Afeyan grew up in the Middle East before coming to North America. Source: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for 100 LIVES/AFP

The 58-year-old co-founder and chairman of Moderna hails from Lebanon, where he was born to Armenian parents. Afeyan moved to Canada to pursue higher education at McGill University in Montreal, then went on to earn his PhD in biochemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Soon afterward, he began working in the US under an H-1B visa, until he eventually became a US citizen in 2008.

Now, Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine has tested 94.5% effective against the novel coronavirus. It is one of the first signs of promise in this pandemic, which has taken over the year. “As a teenager, I dreamed of living in the US. Like many immigrants drawn here, the US was not just a country, but an animating idea where people from different places, different religions, different races, could come together as one,” he told Business Insider.

Afeyan believes this “immigrant mindset” has been a large part of his success. In his words, “Innovation is really a form of intellectual immigration: leaving the comforts of what you know, exposing yourself to criticism, going to something that others don’t believe to be possible and to keep at it until you make it a reality.”

Albert Bourla, Pfizer

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Along with his scientific expertise and business acumen, Albert Bourla brings his Greek sensibilities to leading pharmaceutical brand, Pfizer. Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP

US immigrants are attracted to the quality of science and technology R&D in the country, which begins at universities and graduate schools. Others are attracted to the prospects for employment and career growth, much like Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.

Born and raised in Greece, he emigrated to the US at the age of 34, armed with a PhD in biotechnology in reproduction from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s Veterinary School. “I left Greece as an adult, I left when I was already 34-35 years old and this resulted in me spending the years that shape a person’s character in Greece,” Bourla explains.

Pfizer has developed a COVID-19 vaccine with German biotechnology company BioNTech that proved 90% effective. Following this announcement, Bourla told CNBC, “You understand that the hopes of billions of people and millions of businesses and hundreds of governments were felt on our shoulders. Now, we can credibly tell them [that] we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Afeyan and Bourla are merely two of the thousands of eager talents that flock to the US for a chance at success. Highly-skilled immigrants join companies like Moderna and Pfizer on H-1B visas every year. According to data from the US Office of Foreign Labor Certification, Moderna renewed 27 visa applications for its employees in 2019, while Pfizer clinched 100.

Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, BioNTech

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Ugur Sahin is scientist, CEO and co-founder of German biotechnology company BioNTech, which he owns with his wife Özlem Türeci. Source: Yann Schreiber/AFP

This husband-and-wife team cofounded the biotechnology company that would eventually help bring a major vaccine to light. Though both are children of Turkish immigrants to West Germany, only Türeci was born in Germany. Sahin moved to Cologne with his parents at the age of four. Today, Sahin is the chief executive officer of BioNTech, while Türeci is the chief medical officer.

The BioNTech duo has been pioneering the use of messenger RNA molecules in training the human immune system to attack — among others — the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Now, their decades of work are coming to fruition in the COVID-19 vaccine. If Afeyan and Bourla are testaments to the American dream, Sahin and Türeci are Germany’s equivalent.

What do they all have in common? Well, each of them started out seeking support and resources for their talents overseas, and now, they are pioneering a COVID-19 vaccine that will save lives the world over. At this crucial turning point for the US presidency, anti-immigration rhetoric and policies are being swept away by the tides of demoracy. Immigrant success stories such as these plant seeds of hope for those who travel abroad in search of a better life, as well as those welcoming them to their new home.