After a turbulent few months, Germany takes a stake in COVID-19 vaccine drugmaker CureVac

Germany is taking a 23% stake in privately owned CureVac as it preps to push on with work for its mRNA vaccine against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the investment policy, the German government said CureVac “retains complete operational and strategic independence; the Federal Government will not influence corporate policy decisions.”

It will, however, invest €300 million into the company as it looks to boost its chances of creating a next-gen vaccine using messenger RNA to combat COVID-19. It’s competing with fellow German biotech BioNTech, which is partnered with American giant Pfizer and started clinical testing in April, and U.S. unicorn Moderna, which is currently leading the race to create the world’s first mRNA vaccine and is working on mid- to late-stage trials.  

This cash boost from the German government gives it a 23% stake in the company. “The funds from the capital increase will be used by CureVac for the further development of the company’s proprietary pipeline and mRNA platform technology and the expansion of business activities,” the government and CureVac said in a joint release Monday morning.

The new investment could also be seen as defensive move, as this comes on the heels of accusations that the Trump administration had tried to lure the company over to the U.S. in the hope that it could develop and manufacture its experimental vaccine for U.S. citizens, though this allegation was later denied. The whole saga also saw its former CEO out the door in what was a crazy few weeks for the biotech.

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But it has been staying the course of the science despite the political and managerial storms thundering in the background, and, back in May, it rolled out preclinical results in anticipation of launching a phase 1/2a clinical trial this month.

CureVac said its lead COVID-19 vaccine candidate generated “high levels” of virus-neutralizing titers in animal models and that it “has the potential to induce a strong immunologic response to neutralize SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes the illness. The company is prepared to manufacture “several hundred million doses per year” at its facility in Germany.

CureVac said a low dose of its vaccine candidate—2 micrograms—protected animals from COVID-19 infection. That result was similar to what the company has seen with mRNA vaccines it is studying for rabies, flu and respiratory syncytial virus. In fact, CureVac said that in a phase 1 study of its rabies vaccine, a dose of 1 μg produced immune responses in healthy volunteers.

Vaccines based on mRNA technology carry strands of mRNA that encode disease-specific proteins, with the goal of stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies against the disease. The COVID-19 vaccines from both Moderna and CureVac are centered around the spike protein that allows the novel coronavirus to infect healthy cells.

Now, it has the money and, after a turbulent few months, the time to test its theory in the clinic.

Germany's federal minister for economic affairs and energy, Peter Altmaier, says: “CureVac’s technology has the potential to develop disruptive new vaccines and therapeutic modalities that are accessible for many people and available via the market. The German Federal government has decided to invest in this promising company because it expects that this will accelerate the development programs and provide the means for CureVac to harness the full potential of its technology.”

It's not clear whether Germany will seek to gain preferential access to the vaccine should it come through testing. Talking to reporters, Altmaier only said: "We want to give [the company] financial security."

The company has been predominately invested in by dievini Hopp BioTech holding, the investment vehicle of CureVac’s controlling shareholder Dietmar Hopp.

Hopp said of the new investor: “Since 2005, through my investment company dievini, I have been a very active supporter of the development of novel and innovative therapies and processes in German biotechnology. The coronavirus crisis has made the great relevance and significance of the biotechnology industry for patients, our society, and the world apparent. I am pleased that the importance of biotechnology is also recognized by the government and that this key industry now will receive support beyond early research.

“CureVac is just one of the early and outstanding examples of visionary entrepreneurial biotech innovation from Germany. The Company is a global leader in mRNA technology with great potential for vaccines—for example, against COVID-19, but also many other infectious diseases, as well as for novel therapeutic modalities in other indications. We at dievini were convinced early on of the immense potential CureVac’s mRNA technology holds for the future.”