German Firms Fighting Covid-19
German companies are at the heart of the emergency development of potential coronavirus vaccines. That’s no accident considering Germany’s importance in both the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. Germany Trade & Invest Director of Chemicals and Health Marcus Schmidt gives us the lowdown on this crucial area.
CureVac made the headlines early in the week, but it’s not the only German firm working on a vaccine against Coronavirus and other pathogens. How big is this sector? Where are the hubs?
Right now there are around 40 companies worldwide developing anti-corona vaccines, including the German firms CureVac in Tübingen and BioNTech in Mainz. Also actively involved in researching vaccines in general are, for example, Vaxxilon in Berlin and Bavarian Nordic near Munich.
There are also large international vaccine manufacturers with subsidiaries in Germany. These include Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) with its manufacturing locations in Marburg and Dresden and Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD), which employs more than 2000 people at seven locations in Germany. Among other things, they produce vaccines to prevent influenza, tick-borne encephalitis (TBE), diphtheria, whooping cough and rabies.
The Japanese company Takeda recently opened a sterile production facility in Singen in southwestern Germany for a vaccine to combat dengue fever. The €130 million facility is expected to employ 200 people.
The market for vaccines worldwide is currently around 40 billion US$ and is growing disproportionally fast.
What are the typical procedures for developing a vaccine and having it approved? How long can it take to get a vaccine on the market?
Developing new medicines is a highly complex endeavor. The complete process from developing a vaccine to getting it approved consists of many hundreds of individual steps and takes, on average, more than 13 years despite modern technology. After all, medicine needs to be effective and safe.
Because of of the special urgency in this case, vaccine producers and regulators work together to ensure processes run as quickly as possible. To this end, years ago, the EU established the PRIME (Priority Medicines) procedure to make badly needed and previously unavailable medicines available as soon as possible without sacrificing public safety.
It took around four years to get vaccines against Ebola and avian flu approved. However, the process could be significantly faster with SARS-CoV-2 because companies aren’t starting from scratch. Antipathogens that could help in the fight against the disease already exist and now need to be clinically tested. There are reasons to think that the first vaccines might be available this year. But before they can be prescribed generally, they will have to be approved by an internationally recognized regulatory authority.
Germany seems to be at the forefront of vaccine research. Why is this?
Like all modern medicines, vaccines are high-tech products. To research and develop them, you need the latest analysis and synthesis technology, genetic laboratories, high-performance computers, analytic robots and a lot of other things. Equally important are highly qualified pharmaceutical scientists, an effective research landscape and efficient regulatory authorities.
So it’s no accident that the large Western vaccine companies have concentrated 70 percent of their industrial R&D efforts and an impressive 80 percent of their worldwide production facilities in Europe.
As Europe’s leading pharmaceutical location, Germany offers a particularly good environment. No other country spends as much money as Germany on pharmaceutical R&D.
How does the government support research?
Germany is very concerned with the areas of health and caring for the sick in general. Consequently, in the government’s 2025 High-Tech Strategy, which sets the framework for policies aimed at encouraging innovation in the coming years, one particular focus was on pharmaceutical research.
The development of vaccines and other medicines in Germany is supported by a number of tools for encouraging research. Projects that are particularly important right now and for the future are constantly being underwritten. For example, €155 million have just been devoted to coronavirus research.
SMEs can profit from what is known as the Zentrales Innovationsprogramm Mittelstand (ZIM) – Central Innovation Program for SMEs – from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy, which financially supports research projects and networks. In addition, from the beginning of this year, all companies in Germany have gotten tax breaks for research expenditures.
But what’s just as important as financial support is the entire research landscape, which also receives significant assistance from the government. This encompasses German universities and other institutions that educate specialists, Germany’s research hospitals and the country’s numerous, highly specialized biotechnology clusters.
How well connected internationally are Germany’s research institutions, and how does the pharmaceutical industry work together with biotech companies?
Because of the great complexity of the subject, international cooperation is common within the pharmaceutical sector. So, too, is collaboration between large pharmaceutical companies and innovative biotech firms. One example is the cooperation just agreed between BioNTech and US pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer to develop a messenger-RNA-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The Chinese pharmaceutical company Fosun also recently provided BioNTech with €120 million to develop an anti-coronavirus vaccine.
There are lots of similar examples. German biotechnology companies like Immatics, Affimed, CureVac and Medigene are hardly household names. But they also work closely together with international pharmaceutical conglomerates like Novartis, Roche, Pfizer and Amgen and have a bright future if their research is successful.
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s also important to mention the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI). The CEPI brings together international public and private vaccine developers, for example in Germany, CureVac and the Deutsches Zentrum für Infektionsforschung (German Center for Infection Research).
Could you give us a recent example of a successful German-developed vaccine?
Since the end of 2019, there has been a European Medicines Agency approved vaccine against the highly infectious Ebola virus. It was largely developed in Germany and is produced here. This medication has been in use for quite a while, but until now it lacked the approval by a regulatory authority for general usage.
The vaccine originated in a research project of Health Canada, and it was completed by the American company Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) in Germany. To do so, MSD collaborated closely with the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf and Paul Ehrlich Institute. Funding for the vaccine’s development was provided by the German Ministry of Education and Research as well as GAVI Alliance (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization), which Germany also helps finance. The vaccine is produced at the MSD location in Burgwedel near the city of Hannover in northern Germany. From there it is distributed to everywhere in the world that needs it.
This example shows how important international cooperation is in this area and what a positive role Germany is playing in the development and production of crucial medicines.
Photo: Dr. Marcus Schmidt, Director of the Chemicals and Health Division at Germany Trade & Invest | © GTAI – Illing & Vossbeck Fotografie