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Photo of immigrant family does not show young vaccine developer

December 10, 2020 GMT


CLAIM: Photo of a Turkish family in Germany from the 1970s shows BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine developer Dr. Ugur Sahin as a child. 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The photo of the Turkish family does not show Professor Ugur Sahin, chief executive of Germany’s BioNTech or his family. The photo is part of a 1979 photography series called “Turks in Germany” by German photographer Candida Höfer. 

THE FACTS: A photo of a Turkish family from Höfer’s series circulated widely on social media in recent days, with a caption falsely identifying a child in the photo as Sahin. Höfer’s series captured Turkish immigrants settling in postwar Germany. The photo shows a couple and their four children posing in front of an armoire. 

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Pfizer partnered with BioNTech to produce a vaccine for COVID-19, which was developed by Sahin and his team. BioNTech specializes in harnessing so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA, to train the immune system to attack hostile invaders, from viruses to tumors. Until now, the technology had never been approved for a drug in humans, but the company’s founders said they immediately saw the potential when the virus first emerged early this year, The Associated Press has reported

When Sahin was a young child he moved to Germany from Turkey with his parents. As reports spread about the efficacy of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine in trials and the vaccine was approved for use in the United Kingdom, social media users shared Höfer’s photo, making the false connection between the photo and Sahin. 

“A family of Turkish immigrants in Germany in 1970. The boy in yellow shirt and without shoes is the scientist who developed the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine,” a Facebook user, who shared the photo wrote on Dec. 7. 

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The post was shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

“This is an immigrant family, newly arrived in Germany. The boy in the yellow shirt will go on to invent the COVID vaccine,” wrote a Twitter user on Dec. 6. The post had over 19,000 retweets. 

A spokeswoman for BioNTech confirmed to the AP that the photo does not show Sahin and his family. 

The photo appeared on Twitter in August without specific details about the family, though the tweet noted the photo was part of Höfer’s series and was taken in Düsseldorf. It was shared by a Twitter account titled @diaspora_turk, which shares photos that capture the immigration experiences of Turkish people. A grandson of the family reportedly reached out to the Twitter account, providing details that the family moved from Aksaray, Turkey, to join the father shown in the photo, who had arrived earlier as a guest worker in 1965. 

“These photographs were taken in their new home, the first week the family came to Düsseldorf,” Gökhan Duman, the founder of Diaspora Türk told the AP. “They dressed with the newest clothes and so, these beautiful poses were created.” 

Family members still reside in Germany according to Duman. 

“When this fake-news was shared a lot, we contacted the family again and asked if you would like to make a statement,” Duman said. “They expressed that they saw the news and thanked us for our effort to fix it. The kid in the yellow shirt in the photo is a factory worker in his 50s and he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536