The vaccine breakthroughs at Moderna and Pfizer are the latest examples of how immigrants have been driving billions in American innovation for decades

  • Behind both Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech potential coronavirus vaccines are a group of incredible scientists, biotech CEOs, and venture capitalists funding the effort — many of whom are immigrants.
  • Business Insider spoke with Moderna cofounder and chairman Noubar Afeyan, an immigrant himself, about the breakthrough, and the role immigration plays in US science and technology. 
  • Giovanni Peri, professor and chair of the department of economics at the University of California, Davis, said immigrants have powered American innovation for the past three decades. 
  • The scientific breakthroughs come as the Trump administration continues to limit the number of high-skilled immigrants that can come into the country. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Monday, Moderna, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, announced that its mRNA-1273 vaccine, developed in partnership with the US government, appeared to be 94.5% effective against the novel coronavirus. 

It was a major breakthrough in modern science. And it was made possible in part because of an immigrant from the Middle East named Noubar Afeyan. 

The 58-year-old is the cofounder and chairman of Moderna, and founder and CEO of the venture-capital firm backing the company, Flagship Pioneering. Born in Beirut to Armenian parents, he moved to Canada to study at McGill University in Montreal. 

“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. 

noubar afeyan young

Noubar Afeyan pictured here in grade school in Beirut, Lebanon.
Flagship Pioneering

He then earned his PhD in biochemical engineering at MIT on a student visa and stayed in the US to work thanks to an H-1B visa (a visa for high-skilled foreigners). In 2008, he became a US citizen. 

The biotech leader credits his success to his “immigrant mindset.” (Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, is also an immigrant, born in France.)

“Innovation is really a form of intellectual immigration,” Afeyan said. “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.” 

Moderna’s scientific breakthroughs serve as a reminder of the importance of immigration to the American economy. In recent years, President Donald Trump has cracked down on foreign visas, the very same visas that brought Afeyan to the US. This is a move that could stifle innovation because behind many of America’s scientific breakthroughs, including potential coronavirus vaccines, are immigrants.  

Immigration has long had a sizable impact on US innovation

The impact of immigrants on US innovation can’t be overstated, said Giovanni Peri, professor and chair of the department of economics at the University of California, Davis. 

“There is nothing to be surprised about because immigrants and foreign-born scientists and engineers have been driving American innovation and technology for at least the last 30 years,” he told Business Insider.  

Top health and science companies like Moderna and Pfizer frequently bring highly skilled immigrants to the US on H-1B visas. 

For example, Moderna received or renewed 27 high-skilled immigrant visa applications in 2019, according to analysis of data from the US Office of Foreign Labor Certification. In 2019, that that number was 100 for Pfizer. 

Entrepreneurship, too, has greatly prospered because of immigrants. Immigrants are twice as likely as US natives to patent, Jennifer Hunt, professor and chair of Rutgers University’s department of economics told Business Insider. Immigration increases US productivity and gross domestic product, she said. 

Between 1980 and 2000, nearly 40% of all PhD scientists and engineers employed in the US were foreign born. From 1990 to 2004, over one-third of US scientists who had received Nobel Prizes were immigrants. 

One 2007 study estimated that one in four technology firms created in the US between 1995 and 2005 was founded by at least one foreign-born entrepreneur. Separate research found that in 2006, immigrants made up 25% of new high-tech companies with more than a million dollars in sales. 

According to this data, the US has more immigrant inventors than every other country combined, Quartz reported. 

Immigrants helm some of the nation’s top companies

The reason there’s such a high concentration of hardworking immigrants in the US is because people who are smart in science or technology are attracted to the country’s esteemed universities, graduate schools, and companies, Peri said.

“If the US would cut out or limit itself to Americans, the US would have a much much smaller pool of people who are highly educated in science and technology,” he said. 

That is a main reason why immigrants head some of America’s top health companies. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was born and raised in Thessaloniki, Greece. He emigrated to the US when he was 34.

Pfizer, along with the German biotechnology company BioNTech, is working on a coronavirus vaccine that proved to be highly effective in a late-stage trial.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

As Bourla tells one Greek news outlet, Kathimerini, “My Greekness is intense.”

“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,” he said. 

The couple at the center of BioNTech come from immigrant backgrounds, too. Dr. Ugur Sahin is the CEO and Dr. Özlem Türeci is the chief medical officer. Both are children of Turkish immigrants to Germany.

Ugur Sahin Özlem Türeci biontech

Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci.
Stefan F. So¤mmer via

While Tureci was born in Germany, Sahin was born in Turkey and emigrated to Cologne as a toddler with his mom to join his father who was working at a car factory there, Bloomberg’s Andreas Kluth reported

Then there are a few high profile immigrants whose contributions to US society are so big, they’re hard to quantify. Think of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, born in South Africa, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, born in Russia, or serial investor Robert Herjavec, born in Croatia. 

The US is cracking down on visas for highly skilled workers

Despite the important work immigrants play in American innovation, recent US policy has been unfriendly toward them. 

The US grants 85,000 H-1B visas each year, which companies rely on to fill positions with the world’s best and brightest. Each visa is highly coveted, and given out via a lottery system. 

At the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, the administration introduced hurdles to the application process that “made it more cumbersome to apply, made the process a little slower,” Peri told Business Insider. 

When the novel coronavirus hit the US, the Trump administration cracked down on visas even more, banning foreigners with temporary work visas — including the high-skilled H-1B visas — through the end of 2020. The ban excludes high-skilled immigrants working on research related to the coronavirus. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to reverse these policies.

“If these restrictions stay at they are, if they are not reversed relatively quickly after COVID, it could generate slower growth of science and technology,” Peri said. 

The thinking behind the clampdown on H-1B visas is that it will open up more jobs for Americans. While in the short-term, it may be true, research shows that over the long-term, highly-skilled immigrants actually create more jobs for Americans and lift Americans’ wages

Afeyan agreed, saying restrictions to the H-1B program and other visa programs hurt science and technology. 

“This country would not be what it is, the dream and ideal of this country would not be possible without immigrants, and the commitment and daring of those who have no choice but to imagine another way of life,” he said.

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