Why the German government is ordering vaccines in bulk. What role the EU plays in this. And what Bill Gates has to do with it.
An employee looks at a bacterial carrier at the company Curevac Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/pa
1 The German government is buying a vaccine against Covid-19 that doesn’t even exist yet. Isn’t that premature?
Depends on the perspective. The Swedish-British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca (about 19.5 billion euros in sales in 2018) is just getting masses of pre-orders for the vaccine AZD1222 in. Those willing to buy are exclusively states or institutions that receive public funding. Recently, "Europe’s Inclusive Vaccination Alliance," consisting of Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, bowed to the trend. The countries secured 300 million vaccine doses (says German Health Minister Jens Spahn), perhaps 400 million (says the manufacturer), which should be available to all EU countries by the end of the year.
However, it has not yet been proven that the vaccine developed at Oxford University is effective. What is known after tests on 1,000 test persons: vaccinated persons develop relatively mild side effects, such as headaches and slight fever. And they show an immune response. But only contact with the real Sars Cov-2 virus will show whether and to what extent the body’s response also protects against the virus. For this reason, 10,000 test persons are currently being vaccinated. At this stage, no other substance has yet been tested against Covid-19.
Because the disease continues unabated in many countries, time is of the essence. With 450,000 deaths today, the pandemic has already claimed more victims worldwide than a severe flu epidemic. An end to the deaths is not in sight, because the number of new infections every day continues to rise globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. In light of this, it would be fatal to build production facilities for a vaccine only after its effectiveness has been fully researched. That would cost another valuable few months.
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2 So the EU secures an exclusive vaccine and buys it away from other countries?
Numerous heads of state and government, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have agreed on a world-spiritual language: Vaccines and therapies against Covid-19 are a "common global good" that must be available to all. According to its own information, AstraZeneca can provide two billion vaccine doses – the only thing that is unclear is by when. One billion of these are to be produced by the Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers, for developing and emerging countries. AstraZeneca also has exclusive contracts with the U.K., the U.S. and two vaccination alliances, Cepi and Gavi, each of which involves numerous countries, the World Health Organization and NGOs. The two alliances are also to exclusively receive 700 million vaccine doses and distribute them worldwide.
3 Sounds good, but somehow also confused: With so many exclusive contracts, who will be served first?
No one knows. The organization Doctors Without Borders criticizes that there is no objective and fair global distribution mechanism. Moreover, the organization has had bad experiences with other vaccines in the past. For example, against pneumococci, which cause pneumonia. The Gavi vaccination alliance subsidized very poor countries, but left emerging countries with middle incomes to the market. And it is precisely these countries, a quarter of the world’s nations, that still cannot afford the life-saving drug. This must be prevented with Covid-19.
On the positive side, more than 100 institutions are currently researching a Covid-19 vaccine. The more that succeed, the more vaccine competition there is, which drives down prices. 13 vaccines are already being tested in humans. In Germany, by Mainz-based Biontech, which collaborates with pharmaceutical company Pizer. This week, it was joined by the Tubingen-based company CureVac. The first test subject at the University Hospital of Tubingen, a young man, has already been selected. More than 100 further test persons are to follow. In the first phase, however, the researchers only test whether the drug is tolerated and whether the body reacts with an immune response to the administered mRNA. This stimulates body cells to produce a protein that is also found on the surface of the new coronavirus. The body then forms antibodies against the protein, and these could also combat Sars-Cov-2. Whether this will work, however, will only be tested in phase two. Then test subjects must also come into contact with the pathogen. If successful, this vaccine could be available in mid-2021.
4 Speaking of CureVac. Why did Germany get involved with this company this week?
Apparently because the Tubingen-based company itself had asked for it, according to the Federal Ministry of Finance. In any case, Peter Altmaier (CDU) announced this week that Germany was securing a 23 percent stake in the biopharmaceutical company through the state-owned KfW Bankengruppe (KfW banking group) with 300 million euros. This is not totally unusual: KfW participates in various private funds, which in turn finance start-ups with a connection to Germany.
Direct government involvement, however, is rare. The Federal Minister of Economics justified this primarily in terms of industry strategy. Altmaier wants to keep key industries in Germany, and biotechnology is a key industry according to his industrial strategy. To illustrate this, he invited SAP founder and billionaire Dietmar Hopp via video chat at the press conference where he announced the deal this week. The main shareholder in CureVac had "rendered great services to Germany," Altmaier said. According to a letter to the Bundestag’s budget committee, quoted by various media, CureVac plans to go public on the U.S. Nasdaq technology exchange in July. Apparently, therefore, the German participation is intended to protect against a takeover from abroad. Donald Trump himself already wanted to lure the Tubingen-based company to the USA. The German participation should reduce the supply of CureVac shares – and increase their value. In that case, Germany would have done Dietmar Hopp a great service.
5 And who pays for all this?
The federal government’s stake in CureVac could turn out to be a windfall for the state should the company’s value rise. As for pre-ordering a vaccine from AstraZeneca: Germany will probably pay even if the drug doesn’t work. While the German Health Ministry did not respond to several inquiries on the matter, AstraZeneca wrote in a statement, "The cost of production will be compensated by government funding." In addition, the company promises not to make money with the vaccine until the end of the pandemic, i.e. to work "non profit". "There is no reason to believe a pharmaceutical company," says Kate Elder, a vaccination expert at Doctors Without Borders. She says that others in the industry have broken similar promises too many times. In addition, there is no transparency whatsoever about how much the vaccine costs AstraZeneca.
6 And is Bill Gates behind it all?
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds a number of companies and research projects around Covid-19, which is probably in the nature of things when, as of 2018, you have about $46 billion at your disposal and you want to promote global health care. The foundation took a $52 million stake in CureVac in 2015 and is also co-funding both the Gavi and Cepi alliances. In addition, the University of Oxford is also supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in various research projects.