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When will a vaccine save the world from the coronavirus? That is currently the question of all questions. The Tübingen biotech company CureVac is about to give the answer. Desires are aroused. In good time, the federal government invested 300 million euros in the company. A site visit.

To the people

CEO Franz-Werner Haas and Mariola Fotin-Mleczek as Chief Technology Officer currently control the fortunes of CureVac. The biopharmaceutical company emerged from working groups at the University of Tübingen 20 years ago. The unique selling point is the development of drugs and vaccines based on modified messenger molecules. This hopeful approach brought CureVac several awards and a lot of investor money - for example from SAP founder Dietmar Hopp and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The main shareholder is currently dievini Hopp BioTech Holding.

The salvation of the world as we knew it until spring is smaller than the head of a pin. In fact, it is so tiny that hundreds of millions could fit into such a space. This tiny bit of matter could be enough to stop all coronaviruses. And thus to protect humanity from deadly infections of the lungs, brain and heart and to bring the globe back on the path of economic growth. Not to mention open borders, carefree holidays or happy celebrations. At least that is the hope that has unleashed billions in investments.

What this money does in everyday life can be seen at CureVac in Tübingen. In a completely normal-looking building complex on a hill on the outskirts of the university town, 430 people are working to produce the corona vaccine. No more than a few ten-thousandths of a millimeter per dose, it should neutralize the Sars-CoV-2 pathogen, which is responsible for the global corona pandemic. And the reports from the company's campus sound promising.

Initial tests on healthy volunteers show that the vaccine is so well tolerated in the doses tested. A necessary prerequisite to allow the body to hopefully take up the fight against the pathogen. It won't be long before the next phase of research begins, the all-important one: when thousands of people are injected with the vaccine to see what happens as soon as those test subjects come into contact with the coronavirus. Then it will be shown whether the strategy of the company CureVac, in which the Federal Republic has invested 300 million euros with the help of KfW and thus acquired a 23 percent stake - before Tübingen's successful listing on the New York Stock Exchange - works . It would be the breakthrough the world is waiting for.

Scientists and engineers all over the world are trying to do the same thing right now. In more than 160 laboratories of small start-ups, large pharmaceutical companies and famous universities, researchers are working feverishly on the development of a corona vaccine. CureVac is at the forefront of these efforts. Because if they succeed in what they are trying to do, they will not just take the horror out of an epidemic, but will revolutionize medical research.

The change in viral protein RNA as the key

What happens in Tübingen does not require a high-security wing to control deadly viruses and - as is usually the case with the search for vaccines - to multiply them in a weakened form in chicken protein. Life-threatening pathogens can no longer penetrate here because the researchers working with cell biologist Mariola Fotin-Mleczek only work with minimal components: “We concentrate on a single protein on the surface of the virus in order to activate the immune system. We quickly knew where to start. "

For 20 years, CureVac and its founders have been working on developing drugs and vaccines using so-called mRNA. It is a complicated process that tries to imitate and manipulate the body's own processes in order to arm a person's immune system against invaders such as viruses or against tumor cells. mRNA, also known as messenger RNA, is something like the blueprint for the multiplication of proteins in our body. It copies what is to be produced from the genetic code of a cell. The mRNA varies depending on the types of proteins the body needs and provides the schedule for them. In the case of a vaccine, the aim is to modify the messenger RNA in such a way that it does something else: It is supposed to prevent the spread of a virus in the body's cells by slightly changing the assembly instructions for the production of the virus protein in a laboratory and therefore harmless Version delivers and stimulates cells to produce the protein.

With the coronavirus you know exactly where to start. Because every virus has a special protein, the molecules of which protrude like spikes from a crown. Hence the name coronavirus. These spikes are called spike proteins. They are the spearhead of the virus attack. Because they dock in the body on a human cell membrane protein that allows entry into the cell and normally regulates the blood pressure and water balance of the organism. By attacking and breaking down this protein, the viruses override the mechanism in the body that maintains a healthy fluid balance. While the person then gets a fever, feels weak or even becomes more ill, the virus multiplies in the incapacitated cells. A life-and-death struggle begins when the immune system is too weak to destroy the virus.

A vaccine is designed to prevent this process from starting. To do this, the researchers at CureVac take the mRNA of the spike protein, but change it in some places. This is how proteins are produced in body cells that are normally found in the virus. The immune system recognizes these as foreign and originating from the virus and is thereby mobilized, similar to the case of an infection. Of the approximately 4,000 building blocks that make up the mRNA of the spike protein, it is enough to change two. That alone is enough to alert the immune system. Its defense cells attack the supposedly dangerous intruders and destroy them. Once they have identified the enemy and formed antibodies to fight them, such antibodies against the protein and its virus will patrol the organism even after the fight has long been decided. This is how he prepares himself for the next attack, this time by the real virus. At the same time, the immune system's memory cells store which intruder they fought with. They are thus prepared and can also produce new antibodies as soon as they are attacked by a virus that has these spike proteins.

Clinical studies since summer

What works in the laboratory and in animal experiments has yet to be shown broadly in people. MRNA vaccines built according to this principle, such as the one against rabies from CureVac, are still in the clinical trial stage. The decisive step is missing, but in the case of Corona it is said to be imminent.

“Of course we cannot guarantee that our vaccine will work. Is he safe? Does it stimulate the production of enough antibodies? That will only be shown by the clinical studies that started in the summer, ”says CEO Franz-Werner Haas. “But there are good reasons to believe that we will be successful. In fact, I expect we will see several vaccines on the market in the next year. This is probably a good thing because people react differently to the substances. Older people have weaker immune systems than younger people. People with pre-existing conditions like asthma will react differently than those without. It can be useful to have vaccine variants in use. "

The race for the first vaccine involves billions in investments and billions in profits and losses. Even the reports about the founders of some biotech companies who make good news and then cash in, or the claims that Russian and Chinese hackers are about to crack the computers of biotechnology companies on behalf of the secret service show that there is much more to it is at stake. Just as the first steps on the moon 50 years ago were not just preceded by a technological masterpiece, but were also an expression of America's superiority in times of the Cold War, the manufacture of a vaccine - especially one of the latest generation like CureVac - stands for biotechnological Avant-garde, for economic strength, if not supremacy.

And how such power can be used at a time when confrontation often takes precedence over cooperation was shown at the beginning of the Corona crisis. In the fight for the scarce masks to protect against the virus, any means were right for some. When it comes to distributing a vaccine to the world's population, politicians from different nations, especially US President Donald Trump, sound no different. In Germany, many decision-makers have only realized since Corona what it could mean to be dependent on others. With raw materials and production halls for drugs, for example. China, as a major producer of pharmaceuticals, could stop the supply of vital resources if it wanted, and thus at least temporarily cause chaos and misery.

However, such a development can also be turned positive. If a company like CureVac is successful, it doesn't just offer the opportunity to save the healthcare system billions of euros in expenses for treating an epidemic for a manageable amount of public money. It could also help save the economy from another crash. And: Such a company can be the core of an industry of the future for Germany, in the case of CureVac just a few kilometers away from the place where Carl Benz developed the car at the end of the 19th century and thus created an engine for Germany's rise to an industrial nation. In this sense, 300 million euros from the federal government at CureVac are a strategic investment in Germany.

Construction of further production facilities

“Of course we are under high pressure in a race,” says Franz-Werner Haas. “But first of all there is no one against the others, but one against the virus. At the same time, like everyone else, we are already in the process of building the necessary production facilities. Our factory, which was completed in December of last year - at that time there was still no talk of Covid-19 - is a ten-gram system. That means we can produce ten grams of vaccine in a single production run. We do not yet know how much vaccine you need per patient to find the optimal dose. If one microgram were enough, we could already produce ten million doses; if two micrograms were needed, it would be five million. And our new facility, which is currently under construction, will be enough to produce a billion doses of vaccine. Strictly speaking, we are currently producing at risk because the ultimate proof is still missing. But based on the first data, we have every reason to be optimistic. "

In fact, there are scientists who continue to doubt that an effective vaccine against corona will be found quickly. They point out that despite all research, there is by no means vaccination protection against every virus that is dangerous to humans. The AIDS virus is an example of this. And in the case of the flu viruses, protection does not work perfectly because mutations, changed flu viruses, require a new vaccine every time.

At CureVac, investors and executives believe so much in their strategy to be successful that they not only won the Qatar State Fund to join the company. The British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has also acquired a stake and has also declared its willingness to invest a further billion euros in the development of drugs and the establishment of production facilities in various steps. In addition, CureVac is now on the stock exchange where the largest market awaits, in the USA.

“We have no doubt that we will find more investors. Because regardless of the success of a vaccine against corona, mRNA technology represents a platform on which many other vaccines and drugs can be built. Substances that imitate the natural processes of our body and act against cells that make sick are the substances of the future in the treatment of sick people, ”says Franz-Werner Haas.

And the microbiologist Mariola Fotin-Mleczek is even convinced that her team's approach could be even better than some of her competitors. “The data from the rabies vaccine, for which we followed a very similar strategy, give us confidence,” she says. “Unlike others, we work without any chemical treatment of the vaccine. We therefore only need small amounts to produce protection, as we demonstrated with the rabies vaccine. "

Millions of people around the world are waiting to protect themselves against Corona soon and, after months of limitations and privations, to be able to lead a life again as before the outbreak of the epidemic. Because what Sars-CoV-2 can do, even if you survive, the Belgian virologist Peter Piot has insistently described. All his life he had researched AIDS and Ebola, especially in Africa, without ever getting infected. Presumably in London he got infected with Corona and finally ended up in the intensive care unit. "I've always had respect for viruses," wrote Piot after the disease had ended. “But since I felt the dominant presence of a virus in my own body, my view of it has changed. I feel a lot more vulnerable than before. "

Followed up on December 16, 2020

In the meantime, CureVac has included the first participant in the worldwide study relevant for approval. This begins phase 3 for the Covid-19 vaccine. It is now being tested on more than 35,000 subjects at locations in Europe and Latin America. CureVac expects the first results from the study in the first quarter of this year. The corona vaccine could then receive approvals in the second quarter.

Published on KfW Stories on October 13, 2020, updated on December 16, 2020.