Business Berlin to buy stake in Covid-19 vaccine player CureVac

Berlin to buy stake in Covid-19 vaccine player CureVac

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Germany plans to invest €300m in the coronavirus vaccine developer CureVac, securing a stake in a bid to block a foreign takeover of the company after it attracted interest from the Trump administration.

Berlin said it would acquire a 23 per cent stake in CureVac — a key player in the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine — on the day it emerged the private biotech group was planning an IPO in New York.

The company is due to start clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine this month and is one of a handful of companies working with mRNA technology, which can produce a vaccine more swiftly than traditional methods.

“We want to give [the company] financial security,” Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economics minister, told reporters on Monday.

“For me, and for the federal government, it is elementary from an industrial point of view that we maintain and strengthen key industries in Germany,” he said. “Germany is not for sale. We do not sell our silverware.”

Fears are growing that the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine will spark geopolitical clashes if countries act according to narrow self-interest instead of taking a more collaborative approach.

According to a letter from the German finance ministry seen by the FT, the CureVac investment was “extremely urgent” because the company is planning an IPO on Nasdaq in mid-July.

The document said: “The intended acquisition of a federal shareholding in CureVac is intended to ensure that the company is not taken over by a foreign investor and that it does not leave the country.”

“It is feared that in case of takeover and migration abroad, a vaccine against Covid-19 developed by CureVac in the future will not be made available to Germany and Europe,” it went on.

CureVac, based in Tübingen in south-west Germany, has yet to bring a vaccine to market. It is 80 per cent owned by SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp and counts the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation among its investors.

In March, a German newspaper reported that the US government had sought to take over the group in an effort to secure supply of a potential vaccine after its then chief executive Daniel Menichella met Mr Trump at the White House.

Ministers in Berlin reacted with fury but the company’s management later denied that there had been an approach from the US administration. In a magazine interview, however, Mr Hopp did not deny it, and Mr Menichella has now left the company. 

“It goes without saying that a German company should not be developing a vaccine for exclusive use in the US,” Mr Hopp had said at the time.

The European Commission has already offered CureVac €80m in funding, with its president, Ursula von der Leyen, expressing her hope that the company could have a product ready “perhaps before autumn”.

CureVac was one of the early starters in the vaccine race, but eight other groups have begun clinical trials on humans ahead of it.

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

First into the clinic was Moderna, a US biotech group with an mRNA vaccine. Imperial College London also has a strong mRNA contender and is due to start human testing this month. Altogether, more than 100 coronavirus vaccines are at various stages of development around the world.

Over the weekend a European alliance led by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands struck a deal with drug giant AstraZeneca to secure up to 400m doses of a Covid-19 vaccine being developed with Oxford university.

In a statement, CureVac said the German government would have no influence on corporate decisions, despite its investment, which will be made via the state-owned development bank, KfW.

Mr Hopp said he hoped the government’s stake would help contribute to the growth of life sciences in Germany and Europe and that a “blueprint for further engagement of public and private investment will be created here”.

Mr Altmaier said the investment would not need approval from competition authorities in Brussels because it was similar to the German government’s decision to buy 20 per cent of energy company 50Hertz in 2018 to prevent it being acquired by a Chinese group.

“At that time, we acted very quickly to ensure that we did not lose control of critical infrastructures, and [approval from the European Commission] was not relevant,” he said.

“Messenger RNA” vaccines use the virus’s own genes to instruct the human body to make proteins that will provoke an immune response.

Another group of vaccines use a different technology, employing other viruses that are genetically engineered to carry coronavirus components into human recipients. A third type of vaccine injects coronavirus proteins into patients to stimulate an immune response.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin

 

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