LONDON – The European Commission offered up to €80 million (US$89.4 million) of funding to Curevac AG, to scale up development and production of a vaccine against the coronavirus in Europe, following reports that the U.S. administration had made an offer for the German biotech, in order to get exclusive control of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
The offer, in a personal call from EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Curevac, came a couple of hours after the G7 group of nations committed to coordinate research efforts on the development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, following an emergency summit of leaders on Monday, March 16, hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump.
“We expressed very strong political will to work together to develop therapies and vaccines,” said Charles Michel, president of the EU Council, the body that represents EU heads of state, in a press briefing following the G7 meeting.
That agreement to cooperate took place amid signs the coronavirus crisis is putting strains on what are normally open and collaborative U.S./EU research relationships. Those pressures were brought into sharp focus over the weekend, when Curevac and its main shareholder felt obliged to strenuously deny rumors the U.S. administration had made an offer for the company.
“[Curevac] rejects allegations about offers for acquisition of the company or its technology,” it said on Sunday, March 15. When that did not quell the speculation, in a further statement on March 16 the company said, “To make it clear again on coronavirus: Curevac has not received [an offer] from the U.S. government or related entities.”
The main shareholder in Curevac, which has raised more than $420 million in private equity, also pitched in. Dietmar Hopp first invested in 2005 and holds 80% of the shares. “If the company is successful in developing a vaccine it should be available not only regionally, but to people all over the world,” Hopp said in a statement on March 15.
Despite Curevac’s strenuous denials of any offer, the reports obviously touched a sensitive point in Europe, leading EU Commission President von der Leyen, a German national, to speak by phone to Curevac on Monday. “The phone call between commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Curevac is to ensure this company can continue to operate and do its research in Europe,” an EU spokesman said.
Also included on the call was the EU’s research commissioner, Marija Gabriel, and the vice president of innovation at the European Investment Bank, Ambroise Fayolle. Following the conversation, von der Leyen praised Curevac for its “highly innovative” research. “The EU has supported the company’s research early on and will now finance [it] again. [It’s] crucial to find as soon as possible the vaccine that will help the whole world,” von der Leyen said.
“We are determined to provide Curevac with the financing it needs to quickly scale up development and production of a vaccine against the coronavirus. I am proud that we have leading companies like Curevac in the EU. Their home is here. But their vaccines will benefit everyone, in Europe and beyond,” said von der Leyen.
Asked in the press briefing about the G7 meeting if the issue of Curevac was raised with President Trump, Michel said, “We felt very strong common political will [from President Trump] to make progress together.”
While Curevac has had EU backing, that was the relatively modest sum of €2 million the company won in a prize competition in 2014. In contrast, last month it was awarded an $8.3 million grant by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation for initial trials of its COVID-19 vaccine, while the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency struck a collaboration deal with Curevac on infectious disease vaccines as far back as November 2011.
March 16 was a tale of two German biotechs, with Curevac forced to deny U.S. interest in acquiring its COVID-19 vaccine, while fellow mRNA specialist Biontech AG trumpeted a $135 million Chinese commercialization deal for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, BNT-162, with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.
The reports of a U.S. move to acquire Curevac’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine followed on the heels of the sudden resignation of Curevac CEO, Dan Menichella, a week after he took part in the COVID-19 task force meeting between pharma companies and President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the beginning of March. He was replaced by Curevac co-founder and previous holder of the role, Ingmar Hoerr. Late on March 16, Curevac said Hoerr is taking a temporary leave of absence for medical reasons not caused by coronavirus. Franz-Werner Haas was named deputy CEO until Hoerr returns.
In a statement on March 3, Menichella said Curevac would be able to use its platform technology to develop a vaccine candidate within a few months, drawing on phase I data for its rabies vaccine, published in January.
That showed the lipid encapsulated, injectable construct produced an immune response at a dose of only 1 microgram. “On this basis, we are working intensively to achieve a very low dose for the [COVID-19] vaccine as well,” Menichella said. Curevac’s GMP-approved manufacturing site at its home base of Tubingen, Germany, can produce 10 million doses in one production run, according to Menichella.
A spokesman for Curevac reiterated to BioWorld the earlier denials of any U.S. approach for the vaccine or the company. “We reject rumors of an acquisition,” he said, adding, “The change on our management board was pure coincidence and had nothing to do with [Menichella’s] visit at the White House.”