Fifteen years ago, after an hour-long meeting in the basement of a Paris hotel, Bill Gates agreed to support a German entrepreneur who claimed that a new class of drugs would revolutionize the fight against infectious diseases.
When Covid-19 rocked the world last year, CureVac – the company built by Ingmar Hoerr with the help of money from Microsoft’s founder – seemed perfectly positioned to make that investment and produce a ‘best-in-class’ vaccine. “.
It could be ready “by the fall”, predicted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
But while local rival BioNTech and US competitor Moderna brought vaccines using similar messenger RNA technology to market in less than a year, CureVac’s product is up to six months behind schedule.
It’s the story of how one of the most promising vaccine makers tries to get back on track after developmental delays, the brain hemorrhage of its founder, and a bizarre – perhaps fictitious – attempt. from the White House to steal the business from Germany.
“America first” again?
Following a meeting with executives of the pharmaceutical industry at the White House in early March, German media reported that the Trump administration had sought to lure the company, which also has a base in Boston, USA. United and secure its vaccine exclusively for Americans.
The news led to an uproar in Berlin, particularly after billionaire Dietmar Hopp, CureVac’s top investor, appeared to verify the reports in a magazine interview.
Days later, CureVac’s U.S. CEO Daniel Menichella abruptly left the company, even though biotech denied an official U.S. government approach. The Trump administration has also denied the reports – in one of the few public rebuttals by the former president’s staff against a declared “America First” political position.
Amid the turmoil, Hoerr, the founder of the company who had just succeeded Menichella as chief executive, suffered a brain hemorrhage in a hotel room and left his post again.
Venture capitalist Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach, who sits on the board of directors of CureVac, told the Financial Times that Trump’s story was probably “made up” by people who jumped to conclusions about the presence of a German company at a US government event.
But the reports were enough to frighten European leaders. On March 16, von der Leyen spoke with CureVac management via video conference, then publicly offered the 20-year-old company an 80 million euro loan “to accelerate the development and production of a vaccine “.
In mid-June, the German government opted to invest 300 million euros in CureVac, for a 23 percent stake, before its listing on the Nasdaq in August. The Minister of the Economy, Peter Altmaier, left little doubt about the motives of Berlin: “Germany is not for sale, we do not sell our silverware”. he told reporters.
Suggestions that CureVac investors could have disseminated Trump’s story in preparation for a response from Angela Merkel’s administration have been strongly denied by people close to the company.
“This was not the plan to get German public money,” said von Bohlen, who first invested in the fledgling company in 2004, and whose holding company, Dievini Hopp, formed with Hopp , still owns half of CureVac.
In any case, the company was unlikely to be raising sticks. When Hopp, co-founder of the technology group SAP, first agreed to invest around € 2 million in CureVac in 2005, he wanted to “make sure that we build infrastructure and new jobs here in Germany” , recalled von Bohlen.
Waiting for data
The investment of the German government was however justified. CureVac, which was developing a rabies vaccine at the start of the Covid-19 crisis, had more experience with infectious diseases than BioNTech.
Some scientists also believed that CureVac, which unlike its rival does not chemically alter its mRNA, might end up eliciting a stronger immune response.
But an initial reading of Phase 1 trials in November dampened high expectations. The data showed that the level of antibodies produced by the vaccine was higher than average in blood samples from recovered Covid-19 patients, but appeared to be lower than those produced by candidates BioNTech and Moderna.
However, because each company’s results were measured using different tests and against a different group of recovering patients, they were not directly comparable, according to Suzanne van Voorthuizen, analyst at Kempen. “You always compare apples to oranges,” she says.
The inconclusive data did not deter the European Commission, which signed a contract to secure 405 million doses soon after. Manufacturing agreements with the Germans Wacker Chemie and Rentschler followed in the following weeks, as well as with the French Fareva.
CureVac also raised $ 517 million via a stock offering and its shares are trading more than six times the IPO price last August. Twice in the past few weeks the company’s market value has exceeded that of Deutsche Bank and now stands at around € 16 billion.
“In two years, no one will care anymore [about the delay]Said von Bohlen. “Capacity, quality and price – that’s what everyone will care about,” he added, predicting that regular vaccinations would be needed to protect against viral mutations and that CureVac’s mRNA technology would be. perfectly suited to this challenge.
A first reading of full-scale Phase 3 trials is expected in March, and approvals from major regulators are likely to come in mid-2021. CureVac has waived seeking clearance in the United States, citing market saturation, but got a large order for its vaccine. date, up to 405 million doses to the EU.
Being behind in the race to produce a Covid-19 mRNA vaccine could also end up being a blessing in disguise for CureVac, according to founder Hoerr, 52, who is recovering from his health crisis. He says the time spent perfecting his candidate’s formulation has given his product several competitive advantages.
Unlike vaccines from BioNTech and Pfizer, which currently must be stored at an ultra-cold temperature of -70 ° C during shipment, and Moderna’s product, which must be stored at -20 ° C, the candidate from CureVac is able to survive standard refrigerator temperatures for at least three months, which greatly facilitates delivery to developing countries. “It’s not a miracle,” Hoerr said. “It’s technology. You have to work on it. “
In addition, at 12 micrograms per dose, it requires the smallest amount of active ingredient among mRNA vaccines, allowing for more efficient delivery.
CureVac, which claims to be able to produce 300 million doses this year and an additional 1 billion in 2022, has spent more time expanding its manufacturing network.
The positive assessment is shared by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which bought a 9% stake in CureVac in July and earlier this month pledged a total of 150 million euros to develop Covid-19 vaccines from ” new generation ”with the company.
The UK government has also agreed to provide CureVac with access to its expertise in genome sequencing. In return, the UK will receive 50 million doses of the biotech jab and permission to use contract manufacturers to produce it in Britain.
“The UK is one of the most advanced countries in understanding change and sequencing it,” said Wassili Papas, portfolio manager at the Union of German Institutional Investors, which has a small stake in CureVac. “So for them to choose CureVac, there has to be something going on.”
CureVac’s ambitions received their greatest momentum yet in early January, when German pharmaceutical group Bayer agreed to help with the production and approval of the Covid-19 candidate – the first foray into the development of vaccines in 158 years of history.
Bayer told the FT the deal was “one-off” and the company “just wanted to help,” denying suggestions the Merkel administration had pushed for the partnership.
The German government told the FT that it “does not explicitly exert any influence on the operational activities of the company through its shareholding”, while von Bohlen said that Berlin was first informed by the companies of the agreement after the conclusion of the agreement.
Nonetheless, at a government press conference last month, Armin Laschet, the newly elected leader of Merkel’s party and prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to Bayer, made it clear the importance of the agreement.
“We have to recognize how important it is at this time not to be totally dependent on the world market,” he said, “but also to be able to produce independently in Germany.”
Two weeks ago, CureVac began submitting approval data to the European regulator, and with the first batch of doses secured by the EU, the vaccine could also offer the bloc a chance to repair some of the political damage caused by the much criticized supply of the BioNTech and Oxford / AstraZeneca jabs.
If successful, the company built by Hoerr, which would have been nominated for a Nobel Prize, could even eclipse Bayer’s € 64 billion market value, von Bohlen said, and with BioNTech, reshape the entire industry. .
“MRNA has the potential to become, by order of magnitude, the broadest therapeutic class in medicine,” he said. “It’s a bit of a revival of German strength in the pharmaceutical industry.”