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VACCINE

CureVac: What sets the German biotech firm apart in the Covid-19 vaccine race?

There's a good reason why the Tübingen biotech firm is a bit behind in the Covid-19 vaccine place. Here's how it could help them - and those seeking to get vaccinated - later.

CureVac: What sets the German biotech firm apart in the Covid-19 vaccine race?
The headquarters of CureVac in Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg. Photo: DPA

CureVac CEO Franz-Werner Haas readily admits his German biotech firm is “a bit behind” in the Covid-19 vaccine race, despite using the same cutting-edge technology as rivals Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech.

But with a jab that is easier to store and mass produce, Haas is confident CureVac has found a winning formula — and that more medical breakthroughs are just around the corner.

“There is definitely a race, but a race against the virus, against time,” Haas, 50, told AFP, downplaying the competition between vaccine makers.

CureVac took a major leap forward on Monday when it announced the start of final phase three trials for its Covid-19 vaccine candidate, involving more than 35,000 volunteers in Europe and Latin America.

READ ALSO: Germany's CureVac kicks off finals trials for coronavirus vaccine

Early results are expected in the first quarter of next year, Haas said, speaking via Zoom from CureVac's headquarters in the southwestern city of Tübingen.

By contrast, the shot developed by Germany's BioNTech with US giant Pfizer is this month already being injected into arms in Britain, the United States and Canada.

American firm Moderna is closely behind and on the cusp of a US rollout.

Both vaccines are based on experimental technology that uses synthetic versions of molecules called messenger RNA (mRNA) to deliver instructions to the body's cells to create a protein from the virus.

This trains the immune system to be ready to attack if it encounters SARS-CoV-2.

'Bold'

“We are a bit behind,” Haas said, which had its “pros and cons”.

A key difference with CureVac's vaccine is that it uses natural, non-modified mRNA to trigger an immune response “as close to nature as possible”, Haas said.

This has led to a vaccine candidate that can stay stable for at least three months at normal fridge temperatures.

BioNTech's jab needs to be kept at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), requiring super-cold freezers, and Moderna's at -20 degrees Celsius.

CureVac's product also requires a far lower dosage of just 12 micrograms, compared to 30 micrograms for BioNTech and 100 for Moderna, allowing for faster mass manufacturing.

Haas said it was “fantastic” the two frontrunners had already shown their vaccines to be safe and around 95 percent effective.

“We are quite bold and say: this is also what we can achieve,” he added.

The company's biggest order to date has come from the European Union, for up to 405 million doses.

The US has not placed one, which Haas said was because Washington already has contracts with a range of other vaccine hopefuls so “there was not really a demand”.

Haas at a presentation in October. Photo: DPA

But he sees the US as “a very interesting market, post-pandemic”.

CureVac's jab may end up having an edge in poorer or warmer countries. But even in Western countries, Haas said “it's easier” if you can store the vaccine in a standard fridge in nursing homes or doctor's offices.

He stressed nevertheless that several vaccines of different kinds will be needed to “unpause the world” and end a pandemic that has killed more than 1.6 million people since it first emerged in China late last year.

Trump controversy

Set up in 2000, CureVac prides itself on being the first company to work on mRNA, led by founder Ingmar Hoerr, a pioneer in the field.

Early on, Hoerr attracted the attention of billionaire Dietmar Hopp, co-founder of software behemoth SAP, who has since invested millions of euros and became a controlling shareholder in CureVac.

Given that CureVac has yet to bring a product to market, Haas said Hopp's 15-year-long backing was “quite something”.

CureVac made international headlines in March when rumours surfaced that President Donald Trump wanted exclusive US access to any CureVac coronavirus vaccine, a claim both sides denied.

But the ensuing furore prompted Economy Minister Peter Altmaier to declare that “Germany is not for sale”.

Haas said the Trump controversy was “not the nicest time”, recalling demonstrators outside CureVac's buildings urging the company not to sell out.

In June, the German government paid €300 million for a 23-percent stake in CureVac, followed by a 252-million-euro grant for coronavirus research.

'Personalised medicine'

The Covid-19 vaccine breakthroughs have finally pushed mRNA technology into a “sweet spot”, Haas said, with proof of concept and increased funding opening the door to a slew of other medical advances.

“What is built up now as (mRNA manufacturing) capacity, is here to stay,” Haas said.

CureVac is working on a malaria vaccine with the Gates Foundation, and earlier this year received some “very nice” data on a potential rabies shot.

Haas said mRNA also held huge promise for oncology and could lead to tailored cancer treatments.

With Elon Musk's Tesla, CureVac is developing a “mobile manufacturing unit”, akin to a mini RNA factory, that can be shipped anywhere and produce thousands of vaccines in mere days, potentially stopping an outbreak in its tracks.

Haas also sees a future where patients can pop to the pharmacy to pick up “personalised medicine”, such as a vaccine to fight their specific tumour and manufactured on site.

“That's the vision,” he said. “We have just started.”

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COVID-19

German health agency expects number of Covid ICU patients to rise

The Covid pandemic is continuing to cause problems around Germany, with concerns that the number of patients needing treatment will rise in the coming weeks.

German health agency expects number of Covid ICU patients to rise

In its weekly Covid report, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said that confirmed infections appeared to be rising in some German states, and falling in others.

But experts warned that the situation remained tense, with many infections not reported. 

Therefore, in the coming weeks, “hospitalisations, an increase in intensive care treatment and deaths are to be expected, especially among the elderly”, said the RKI.

People over the age of 80 “continue to be most affected by severe courses of the disease”, the experts said in their report. 

The incidence of infections is continuing to rise for this age group, and the number of outbreaks of Covid-19 in medical treatment facilities as well as in old people’s and nursing homes is going up.

READ ALSO: Which Covid rules are likely to return to Germany in autumn?

The number of patients with Covid-19 being treated in intensive care units (ICUs) is also rising slightly. In the previous week, the number was reported to be around 1,330. And on Thursday July 28th, 1,550 people were in ICUs in Germany with 484 receiving ventilation treatment, according to the DIVI intensive care register. 

The number of deaths in connection with the virus is currently around just over 400 per week. The RKI says this trend is a plateau.

When it comes to the overall picture of Covid in Germany, the RKI said there was a “sideways movement rather than a decreasing trend”.

Last week, the nationwide 7-day incidence decreased slightly compared to the previous week. The overall picture shows falling incidences in most western German states and Berlin, with incidences still rising slightly in the other eastern German states and Bavaria.

The RKI estimates there’s been a total of 800,000 to 1.5 million people with Covid (who also have symptoms) in the past week alone in Germany.

Last week experts warned that they expected the Covid situation to get worse in the coming weeks as many schools in Germany return after the summer break.

READ ALSO: Germany’s summer Covid wave set to get worse

The Omicron sub-variant BA.5, which has dominated in Germany since mid-June, has almost completely displaced other variants. It accounts for 89 percent of samples in the past week, the RKI said.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach warned people against underestimating getting Covid again.

The SPD politician pointed out that it was very easy to become infected with BA.5 – even for those who were infected with a previous type.

He warned that many could become seriously ill or die, plus there’s the risk of picking up Long Covid.

“Therefore, we have to solve the problem not by constant infection, but by better vaccines,” Lauterbach said.

‘Call things as they are’

Lauterbach, meanwhile, defended himself against his choice of words when describing the possibility of a new dangerous Covid variant emerging in autumn. 

In an interview with Bild newspaper in April he said: “It is quite possible that we will get a highly contagious Omicron variant that is as deadly as Delta – that would be an absolute killer variant.”

He was slammed for his dramatic choice of words. 

This week Lauterbach said: “I use few vocabulary that is apocalyptic. But sometimes you have to call things as they are.”

If there were a virus that linked the contagion of the BA.5 variant with the severe course of a Delta variant, “that would be a killer variant”, he maintained.

But he stressed that he had “not said that such a variant is definitely coming, but that we have to be prepared for such a variant”.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister calls on under 60s to get next Covid jab

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