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The Curious Case of CureVac

The German newspaper Welt am Sonntag has reported that the Trump administration has been making overtures to the German vaccine company Curevac. Here’s the part that’s really making headlines (my translation below):

Der US-Präsident bietet der deutschen Firma angeblich einen hohen Betrag, um sich ihre Arbeit zu sichern. Von einer Milliarde Dollar ist in Berlin die Rede. Besonders problematisch ist: Trump tue alles, um einen Impfstoff für die Vereinigten Staaten zu bekommen. „Aber eben nur für die USA“, heißt es in der Bundesregierung.

The US President is allegedly offering the German firm a large amount to secure its work. There is talk in Berlin of a billion dollars. Especially problematic is that Trump is doing everything possible to get a vaccine for the United States, “But only for the USA”, it is said in the German government.

“Secure” seems the most appropriate word for the German verb “sichern”. It also has the sense of save, ensure, safeguard, etc. (it’s a verb used when you’re backing up work on a hard drive or when you’re locking an outside door to a building). The “only for the USA” part, of course, is even more of a kicker. The reporter on this story (Jan Dams) had several sources in the German government for this story, and one for that particular quote, but was unable to get CureVac to respond.

Reuters has a more updated version, working off of Dams’ scoop. Their own government sources confirmed the story, for starters, but the “only for the USA” quote is still only in the Welt version. Reuters quotes a US government official as saying that the story is “. . .wildly overplayed. . .any solution found would be shared with the world”. And here is the New York Times followup a few hours later, which quotes another German government source as saying that it was “unclear whether the administration simply wanted the research work, and for any resulting production to be on American soil”. The only story with an “only for the USA” angle remains the original Welt am Sonntag report.

US Ambassador Richard Grenell said on Twitter “Not true. The Welt story was wrong.” In a better world, that might end things. But sadly, Grenell is (in my opinion) a hack who seems to have decided that his primary job is carrying water for Donald Trump no matter what, so his word is not worth very much for me. He is (and I do not use this word lightly) loathed in Germany and his opinions carry no weight at all there, either. And yes, I realize that he is also the acting Director of National Intelligence, and such is the world we find ourselves in. At any rate, his denials cannot bring an end to this story.

But what on earth is this story, anyway? It sounds like, and this is my own speculation here, someone is describing an attempt by the US government to perhaps purchase an exclusive license to whatever CureVac might discover in the coronavirus field and then restrict its use to the US (?!), or (whether it makes sense or not) to buy the company outright. I have trouble crediting either of those, honestly, but then again a lot of things have happened over the last few years that I wouldn’t have believed, either. Another problem (similar to the Grenell denial problem) is that we have seen ideas floated recently, such as one mentioned by Attorney General Barr for US money to be put into Nokia and Ericsson to make them more competitive with China’s Huawei. That wasn’t a big hit in Europe either, whatever the national telecommunications security details. So the idea of the US putting its weight behind particular European companies, or even taking them over altogether, is not so far-fetched.

It’s that “only for the USA” part that won’t go away, though, and that people won’t forget. Either this idea was actually floated by someone in the US government – and let’s be clear, such a proposal is utterly unconscionable – or someone in the German government took an opportunity to smear the US government, which would be a pretty awful move too, or someone has gotten something terribly wrong. I don’t see how we can rule any of those three out. Goddammit. I would very much like to be able to dismiss the first possibility out of hand, but (here come those opinions again) three years of sociopathic behavior from the US president and those willing to please him make me unable to quite do that.

So let’s take a look at CureVac itself. The company is a competitor in the mRNA vaccine space (which Moderna is also working in). That’s a promising field, but mRNA vaccines have yet to prove themselves in humans, so expecting one to ride to the rescue for 2019-Cov2 is asking a lot. Some readers will recall Moderna starting up a few years ago with a gigantic splash and lots of deals with larger companies, but that was all about their promised to control protein expression through mRNA pathways. More speculation here: what appears to have happened is that the company’s work in this area set off very strong immune responses in animal models, which is not so great if you’re trying to use these oliogonucleotide analogs as therapeutic agents. But the company decided a while back, I think, to make lemonade out of that load of anaphylactic lemons and go into the vaccine market, which is where they seem to have made the most clinical progress.

CureVac, though, had been in this space from the start (since 2000). Over their history, they have also been trying to produce mRNA therapeutics and to produce vaccines, but it’s been a rather long road (as summarized here at Endpoints) that has so far led to no marketed products. Their founder, Ingmar Hoerr, may well have been the first person to note the potential of mRNA species as vaccine candidates (during his doctoral work) and that led him to start the company. Most interestingly, he was replaced as CEO two years ago by Dan Menichella, and it was Menichella who was one of the biopharma executives meeting with President Trump earlier this month – the meeting, some may recall, where Trump revealed a great deal of confusion on his part about vaccines in general, and about which he later said that he told every one to do him a favor and speed things up, prompting this end-of-the-tether editorial at Science. After that summit, Menichella stated that CureVac was “very confident” that they could develop a candidate vaccine “within a few months”.

But he himself was abruptly replaced a few days ago by Ingmar Hoerr (see that Endpoints link in the paragraph above), and no one who knows is saying quite why this happened. I don’t know if there is any connection with the Welt am Sonntag story itself, but there certainly could be. At the same time, CureVac’s new urgent focus on a coronavirus vaccine would seem to be more in line with Hoerr’s strengths as well, so you can’t leave out the possibility of a sheer business decision due to wildly changing circumstances. Update: Hoerr, after nine days back as CEO, has just announced that he is taking medical leave, but the company says that this is not related to coronavirus. No one has any idea of what’s going on.

At any rate, the mRNA vaccine area for Covid-19 also has another German company in it, BioNTech of Mainz. They have announced a deal with a Chinese company (Fosun) and are moving into development of their own candidate(s) next month in China, the US, and Europe. Overall (as one can see) the path to taking mRNA vaccine candidates into the clinic is faster than traditional routes based on protein epitopes, killed-virus preparations, etc. And that’s a good thing – but only if these turn out to be plausible vaccine candidates. Which completely remains to be proven.

There’s at least a bit of room for optimism on the general idea: Moderna has been working with Merck on oncology vaccines (a field with its own complications, to be sure), but apparently the basic-immunology part of that collaboration has been going well enough so far. CureVac also had previously announced funding from the Gates Foundation (two rounds so far) for work on malaria and influenza vaccines, so presumably that was proceeding well enough for the Gates people to invest more in the idea. But we’re going to have to find out, and more quickly than anyone had planned, just how things will go against a new human pathogen in real time.

Back, then, to the story we started with. It seems very likely that the US government has been making overtures to CureVac, although we don’t know quite what these offers were. At the very least, doing this in such a stealthy manner in a country that we have such important and longstanding ties with (economic, military, intelligence and more) seems like a very bad idea. And if the reports of some sort of “USA only” clause are true – we may never know, damn it all – then that is so far beyond a “bad idea” that words fail me. At the very least, this affair does nothing but sow confusion and discord, at the worst possible time, between nations that should be working together. Someone, on some side of this story, should be deeply ashamed and probably isn’t.

Update: I should note that Moderna’s own mRNA vaccine candidate is starting its first human doses (safety testing) today. . .

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