Mooted US Vaccine “Poaching” Raises German Ire

Trump reportedly sought to buy CureVac for the US

17.03.2020 -

News reports that the US government had offered considerable sums of money to lure top-level scientists working for a Germany-based privately owned biotech, or even the company itself, to the US to develop a vaccine for COVID-2019 has raised ire across the country.

The story published on Mar. 15 by German Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag was picked up by national and international news agencies, sending government officials scurrying to reassure the public that the company, CureVac, which works together with state-owned German health research think-tank Paul-Ehrlich Institut, would not be bought out by the US.

CureVac hopes to have an experimental vaccine ready by June or July this year and then seek a regulatory greenlight for clinical trials. This could benefit Donald Trump, who has repeatedly told Americans that a vaccine could be available “very soon,” although trials and subsequent approval could presumably consume at least a year.

Trump personally has been mooted as being the source of the reportedly lucrative offer – according to one report around $1 billion – and having attached a stipulation that the vaccine be made available to the US exclusively.

Germany’s health ministry meanwhile has confirmed that a US offer for CureVac has been made, and said the government was in talks with the Tübingen-based biotech’s investors about financial incentives to keep it in the country. The ministry said Berlin “has a great interest in producing vaccines in Germany and Europe.”

While an economics ministry spokesperson told news agencies on Sunday that Germany’s foreign trade law allows the government to examine takeover bids from non-EU countries “if national or European security interests are at stake,” it was subsequently pointed out that this does not apply to non-listed firms.

US officials tried to play down the report, saying that the government is not attempting to lure away scientists from other countries. Richard Grenell, US ambassador to Germany, who is now also acting director of US intelligence, tweeted that “the Welt’s story was wrong.”

Main investors in the clinical stage biotechnology company, which has 20 years of experience in developing the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, have been identified as Dievini Hopp BioTech,a holding belonging to Dietmar Hopp, founder of Germany software giant SAP, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

CureVac which has a US offshoot in Boston, Massachusetts, center of the US biotech industry, also collaborates with multinational drugmakers and organizations, including Germany’s Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly of the US, Denmark’s Genmab and Swiss-headquartered CRISPR Therapeutics, among others.

While declining comment on speculation, the vaccine maker at the same time said it “rejects allegations about offers for acquisition of the company or its technology.” Three statements published on the CureVac website during March, however, have led to speculation about what the biotech may indeed plan or not plan.

On Mar. 3, CureVac said CEO Daniel Menichella had met in Washington with Trump, US vice president Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, as well as senior representatives of pharmaceutical and biotech firms, to discuss a vaccine for COVID-19. At the meeting, he acknowledged that his company had a late-stage candidate.

On Mar. 10, CureVac announced that Menichella had been replaced by co-founder and former CEO Ingmar Hoerr, only to report six days later that Hoerr was taking a temporary leave of absence for medical reasons. It stressed, however, that he “does not have the corona virus.”