Tübingen The Tübingen-based biotech company CureVac has been working on a vaccine against the coronavirus since January. The General-Anzeiger spoke with Friedrich Bohlen, member of the supervisory board of CureVac.
The hopes of millions of people are pinned on the Tübingen-based biotech company CureVac, which is driving the development of a corona vaccine. We spoke with Friedrich von Bohlen, Managing Director of Dietmar Hopp's investment company Dievini, which holds 82 percent of CureVac. Bohlen is also a member of CureVac's supervisory board.
How far have you progressed with the development of the vaccine?
Bohlen: We are making good progress. Soon we will be able to enter preclinical trials and test the vaccine on animals. In summer we can start clinical trials on humans. The most important thing is to find the right dose.
The most important question for people at the moment: When could the vaccine be launched?
Bohlen: This depends on many factors and also on how this pandemic develops. If it develops dramatically, acceleration will be possible. But I am certain that the vaccine will come.
How quickly could you ramp up production?
Bohlen: This depends on how high the dosage has to be to protect a person effectively. If we needed one microgram of vaccine per vaccination, as CureVac recently showed with rabies, one kilogram could vaccinate one billion people. If the dose has to be higher, we also need considerably more vaccine. CureVac would now be able to produce over 100 million doses per year.
Can you explain to laypeople how the vaccine works?
Bohlen: Each messenger RNA (mRNA for short) transports the information required for the formation of a specific protein. The virus has specific proteins on its surface that are recognised by our immune system. mRNA can communicate this information to the immune system even without a virus, so that the immune system then produces those cells whose antibodies recognise and destroy the viruses if the virus later infects humans. This is also called active immunisation. The substance class is new, namely mRNA, with which almost any infectious disease can be immunised.
Its success has apparently also attracted US President Donald Trump. What happened at the White House in early March?
Bohlen: In March, CureVac was the only German company to attend a meeting of pharmaceutical companies on the corona crisis at the White House. After that, speculation arose that Trump wanted to take over CureVac or buy up exclusive supply capacities for the USA. To put it bluntly, there has been no such offer from the US government. However, I do not want to rule out the possibility that a request for vaccine will one day come from the USA, including from other regions.
And then what?
Bohlen: We will stick to the approach that Dietmar Hopp has also taken and he made clear: We are in solidarity with people all over the world. And if the demand for the vaccine exceeds the supply, there must be a fair distribution mechanism. At the same time, we emphasise: we want to maintain and expand high innovation in Germany.
Has the Chancellor or Health Minister Spahn spoken to Mr Hopp?
Bohlen: Not with Mr Hopp, but with the company there have been and are discussions. Also with the European Union.
You speak of a distribution mechanism. Does the country that pays the most get the most?
Bohlen: Certainly not. It will have to be prioritised together with the World Health Organisation. And unpleasant scenarios are conceivable. We will have to decide whether to give priority to certain patients or regions or whether to rely on quotas, i.e. a certain amount of vaccine per country.
What can politicians do to further support CureVac?
Bohlen: We are very pleased that EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has promised 80 million euros in support to rapidly expand production capacities and thus ensure the necessary quantities of vaccine material. But support for the actual operation is also important. We need highly qualified staff, equipment, materials and quality-controlled processes. Authorities such as EMA are needed for approval. How quickly this can be done depends on which questions have to be answered in which order and in what depth.
Who had the idea for the vaccine?
Bohlen: CureVac was founded in Tübingen in 2000 by Ingmar Hoerr and two other researchers. When I met Ingmar in 2004 and he explained his concept to me, it was clear to me: too good to be true, or highly innovative transformation for the whole of medicine. Today, it seems that mRNA can improve the whole field of medicine. Not only against virtually all infectious diseases, but also against cancer or diseases based on molecular defects. We, as Dievini, Mr. Hopp's investment company, have invested in CureVac since 2006 and have actively supported and accompanied the company since then. As a PhD student, Ingmar had discovered that mRNA can be used as a therapeutic vaccine or active substance when administered directly into the tissue, provided that it is first optimised. This groundbreaking discovery enables us to exploit the incredibly broad potential of this bio-molecule in a variety of ways.
Is Ingmar Hoerr still involved?
Bohlen: Unfortunately, he recently had to step down as CEO of CureVac due to an illness - but it is not Corona. We hope that he will be back soon.
CureVac is not the only company looking for a vaccine. How far is the competition?
Bohlen: There are two other companies that rely on mRNA, Moderna from Boston and Biontech from Mainz. Moderna has announced that it is already testing the vaccine on humans. Both companies use modified nucleotides; CureVac uses the natural building blocks for which the company holds many patents.
What is the next step in the corona epidemic?
Bohlen It is impossible to say. It was good that the politicians are now reacting. If the pathogen mutates quickly, it could become a permanent problem. Then we will have to inoculate against Corona again and again, as is already common with influenza. But I am confident that Corona will be manageable.
How will you protect yourself?
Bohlen: Avoid social contact and wash your hands repeatedly. And stay calm. I think it's right that we do everything we can to prevent the spread of the virus. But I see no reason for hysteria.
Original text: GA Bonn
Translation: Mareike Graepel