German biopharmaceutical company CureVac, backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, hopes to catch up on the development of the coronavirus vaccine and get a competitive, efficient and easy-to-administer product that would reshape the industry, according to the Financial Times.
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Fifteen years ago, after an hour-long meeting in the basement of a hotel in Paris, Bill Gates agreed to offer support to a German entrepreneur who said a new type of medicine would revolutionize the fight against infectious diseases. In the context of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide in 2020, CureVac, a company built by Ingmar Hoerr with the financial support of the founder of Microsoft, seemed perfectly positioned to take advantage of the investment and produce one of the best vaccines.
“It could be ready by autumn,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen anticipated.
However, while local rival BioNTech and competing US company Moderna have introduced similar RNA messenger vaccines to the market in less than a year, the CureVac product is at least six months old.
“This is the story of how one of the most promising vaccine manufacturers tries to return to the race after a series of delays in product development, after the cerebral hemorrhage suffered by the founder and after a bizarre – possibly fictitious – attempt by the White House to take over the German company “, comments the Financial Times.
“America first” again?
After a meeting of pharmaceutical company managers at the White House in March 2020, German media reported that the Donald Trump administration tried to lure the company, which is also based in Boston, in the United States, to provide vaccines exclusively to American citizens. The news sparked unrest in Berlin, especially after billionaire Dietmar Hopp, CureVac’s main shareholder, appeared to confirm the information in an interview. A few days later, the general manager of CureVac, the American Daniel Menichella, suddenly left the company, although the information regarding an official approach of the American officials was denied. The Trump administration has denied media reports of such a move, one of the rare public occasions to deny the “America in the First Place” approach.
Amid tensions, Ingmar Hoerr, the company’s founder who had just taken over as CEO of Daniel Menichella, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in a hotel room and resigned.
Investor Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach, a member of CureVac’s board of directors, told the Financial Times that the story of Donald Trump’s involvement was probably “invented” by people who drew premature conclusions about the presence of a German company representative at a government event. American.
But the information in the press was enough to raise the concerns of European leaders. On March 16, 2020, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, held a videoconference with CureVac management and then offered the 20-year-old company a loan of 80 million euros, “to develop rapid development and production. a vaccine “.
By mid-June 2020, the German government had announced a € 300 million investment in CureVac, with a 23% stake, before listing on the Nasdaq in August. German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier did not leave too many doubts about Berlin’s motives: “Germany is not for sale, we are not selling our precious things.”
Suggestions that CureVac investors would spread rumors about Donald Trump’s involvement in attracting a reaction from Angela Merkel’s government have been vehemently denied by the company. “There was no plan to obtain German public funds,” said Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach.
Waiting for the data
But there is a rational motivation behind the investments made by the Berlin Government. CureVac, which was developing a rabies vaccine when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, had more experience in infectious diseases than BioNTech. Some scientists believe that CureVac, which unlike its competitor does not chemically alter mRNA, could provide a stronger immune response.
But an initial presentation of the results of the Phase 1 tests in November 2020 lowered expectations. The data showed that the level of antibodies produced by the CureVac vaccine was above average in the blood samples taken from 19 patients, but appeared to be below the level generated by the BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. However, because the results were measured by different methods and in different groups of convalescent patients, they could not be compared directly, explains Suzanne van Voorthuizen, an analyst at Kempen.
The inconclusive data did not prevent the European Commission from signing a contract for the purchase of 405 million doses of the potential vaccine. Production agreements followed with the German companies Wacker Chemie and Rentschler, as well as with Fareva (France).
CureVac also raised $ 517 million (425 million euros) in the sale of shares, and in recent weeks the market value of the company has surpassed that of Deutsche Bank, now at 16 billion euros. .
“In no more than two years, no one will care about the delay. Capacity, quality and price will be the thing of interest,” says Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach, anticipating that regular vaccinations will be needed to protect against coronavirus mutations. and that CureVac mRNA technology is ideally positioned in this regard.
Preliminary results of the third phase of clinical trials are expected in March, and regulatory approvals are likely to come after mid-2021. CureVac has dropped licensing procedures in the United States, citing market saturation but a massive order. so far, 405 million doses for the European Union.
Being behind the race for vaccine development could become an advantage for CureVac, according to the company’s founder, Ingmar Hoerr, 52, who is recovering from medical problems. He says the time spent perfecting the vaccine formula offers some competitive advantages.
Unlike the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept during transport at extremely low temperatures, minus 70 degrees Celsius, and the Moderna product, which must be kept at minus 20 degrees, the CureVac vaccine can last at least three months. standard refrigeration temperatures, so it is easier to supply to developing countries. “It’s not a miracle, it’s technology, but it takes effort,” explains Ingmar Hoerr.
In addition, 12 microgram doses have the lowest amount of active ingredients among mRNA vaccines, allowing for more efficient distribution.
CureVac, which claims it will be able to produce 300 million doses this year and another billion in 2022, has had extra time to organize the production network. The positive assessment is confirmed by the pharmaceutical group GlaxoSmithKline, which bought a 9% stake in CureVac in July and recently announced another 150 million euros for the development of the so-called “new generation” of Covid-19 vaccines.
The British government has agreed to give CureVac access to scientific data on genomic sequencing. Instead, the UK will receive 50 million doses of vaccine and have the opportunity to start production in British units.
CureVac’s ambitions were most stimulated in January, when the German group Bayer agreed to contribute to the production and approval of the vaccine, the first vaccine development initiative in the company’s 158-year history. Bayer argued that he “just wanted to offer help,” rejecting suggestions that the partnership had been boosted by the German government.
Two weeks ago, CureVac began providing data for authorization by the European regulator, and doses purchased in advance by the European Union would make it possible to repair some of the political damage caused by contracts with BioNTech / Pfizer and Oxford / AstraZeneca.
If successful, the company built by Ingmar Hoerr, which was reportedly nominated for the Nobel Prize, could eclipse Bayer’s market value of 64 billion euros, says Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach. Together with BioNTech, this would contribute to the reconfiguration of the entire pharmaceutical sector.
“MRNA technology has the potential to become, in terms of magnitude, the widest therapeutic class in medicine. It is a small step towards relaunching German strength in the pharmaceutical industry,” explains Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach.
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