Coronavirus: The race to save Germany | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 18.09.2020
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Coronavirus: The race to save Germany

With relatively low exposure to the coronavirus, health experts in Germany say the country won't be safe until there is a viable vaccine. Berlin has promised funding to three German companies racing to save lives.

Germany doesn't have enough cases of coronavirus, and that could become a problem in the long term.

While the European country has avoided the catastrophe that struck its neighbors earlier this year — when high rates of coronavirus overwhelmed health care systems and killed tens of thousands — the comparatively low exposure of its population to COVID-19 means the potential for herd immunity on a national scale is out of the question for now.

So when might it be safe for Germans to take off their masks?

The pandemic won't end "...until significant parts of the population can be provided a vaccine," eminent German virologist Christian Drosten told DW on Thursday. 

"In countries like Germany where incidences are low, there will be nothing like a population-based protection," he said. "This is probably something we shouldn't consider for any country in Europe."

Read more: Fewer Germans willing to get coronavirus vaccine, survey shows

Fortunately, multiple German companies are now in the late stages of developing a vaccine against coronavirus. German officials this week said the country is likely to have access to a variety of vaccines by the middle of next year. Berlin has committed to pumping another  €752 million ($892 million) into three domestic companies to support vaccine development and production.

In exchange, Germany would be guaranteed access to 40 million doses of said vaccines, should health regulators approve them for public use, for its population of 83 million, on top of doses guaranteed to Germany by supply agreements negotiated through the EU.

DW has a look at the companies racing to save Germany:

Watch video 01:59

CureVac: Investors drive biotech race for COVID-19 vaccine

CureVac

Just 20 years old and yet to bring a vaccine to market, CureVac is pursuing an mRNA-based vaccine that would instruct human cells to produce proteins resembling the outer surface of the coronavirus, thereby triggering an immune system response.

In March, the Tübingen-based firm was at the center of international drama following reports that US President Donald Trump had tried to obtain exclusive rights to a promising vaccine for the US population.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccination: What are we actually waiting for?

CureVac denied the reports, and SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp, who owned a more than 80% stake in the then privately held company, said none of the CureVac investors would sell their shares.

In May, the German government increased its powers to block foreign bids to take over German health care firms, echoing past moves to protect Germany's high-tech industrial companies from acquisitions by Chinese rivals.

CureVac went public in August.

The firm has a cooperation with Tesla-subsidiary Grohmann Automation, whose bioprinting technology could help automate production of the vaccine.

CureVac CEO Haas told DW that the price of its potential vaccine would need to reflect everything the company had invested in the 20 years since it was founded.

"But it should also be affordable," he said. He estimated the price at around €10 to €15 a dose.

Haas said developing the vaccine is a "race against time" rather than against the competitors, a sentiment shared by Caroline Schmutte of Wellcome Trust, a health research institute in the UK, who told DW that an ideal approach to curbing the pandemic would require multiple vaccines available globally to meet the huge dosages needs that are expected.

CureVac will receive €230 million from the German government's latest funding round.

Watch video 02:30

Vaccine efforts a mix of competition and cooperation

BioNTech

Founded in 2008, the Mainz-based biotechnological company in 2019 won financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop vaccines against HIV and tuberculosis.

In March, BioNTech announced it would cooperate with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in the development of a coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine would be based on insights gleaned from the partners' existing collaboration developing a mRNA-based vaccine against influenza, BioNTech said. 

The publicly owned company is to receive €375 million from the German government's offer. The European Commission has also struck a deal with the firm, which would make 300 million doses of a potential vaccine available for purchase to EU member states.

Earlier this week, the company announced it was maneuvering to acquire a pharmaceutical production facility in Marburg, Germany, currently owned by Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. The acquisition would increase BioNTech's production capacity by up to 750 million additional vaccine doses per year, the company said in a statement.

BioNTech aims for a vaccine that is effective in at least 70% of patients, a benchmark that CEO Ugur Sahin says is necessary to subdue the pandemic. The company has also confirmed that its vaccines can be stored at refrigerator temperatures for at least two weeks, allaying fears that they would require deep freezing.

Watch video 01:38

UPS builds massive freezer farms for coronavirus vaccine

IDT Biologika

A classic example of the small and medium-sized enterprises on which the German economy relies, the family-owned firm in Germany's East has also been pegged to receive a slice of Berlin's funding pie. Terms of the agreement are still in the works.

The biopharmaceutical company in Dessau-Rosslau in Germany's Saxony-Anhalt in March had applied for a federal grant worth €170 million to put towards developing and producing the vaccine.

IDT Biologika, which has been in business for nearly 100 years, in late July complained that it was experiencing bottlenecks for equipment and that some suppliers had raised their prices.

Read more: COVID-19 vaccine: From the lab to your doorstep

"We have seen such examples [of price hikes] and those were even quite considerable mark-ups,”Senior Vice President of Development Andreas Neubert told Reuters.

"Our joint efforts to increase output volumes go hand in hand with a need to have a responsible handling of prices to keep production costs under control," he said. 

Neubert said his company intends to build a new production line capable of bottling an additional 380 million vaccine doses per year.

IDT's Biologika's vaccine is based on a smallpox vaccine that scientists developed over 30 years ago.

Watch video 05:18

German virologist Christian Drosten: 'We won't get rid of masks anytime soon'