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Commentary – Biotech, Trump’s Latest Casino

SARS-Cov-2 virus

Scanning electron microscope image of SARS-Cov-2 virus, responsible for Covid-19 infections (NIH.gov)

16 Mar. 2020. If you thought the Trump administration couldn’t bungle any worse its response to the coronavirus pandemic, think again. Germany’s Interior Minister confirmed that U.S. officials, and maybe even President Trump himself, tried to lure the work of biotechnology company CureVac GmbH in Tübingen, Germany to the U.S. after the company’s CEO met with Trump at the White House earlier this month.

CureVac created a technology producing messenger RNA, the nucleic acids that transcribe an individual’s genetic code in DNA into amino acids that instruct cells in the body to produce proteins. With this technology the company, as we’ve reported a number of times since 2014, develops cancer immunotherapies and vaccines for infectious diseases. The platform itself is based on research by CureVac’s scientific founder Ingmar Hoerr in the 1990s, which assembles the usually unstable messenger RNA molecules into stable therapeutics.

Among CureVac’s customers is the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, an international consortium that funds vaccines for infectious diseases, often not financially attractive for pharmaceutical companies. In February 2019, CEPI awarded CureVac a $34 million contract to advance the company’s mobile messenger RNA manufacturing platform that formulates vaccines into lipid, or natural oil, nanoscale particles.

On 31 January of this year, CEPI extended that work to cover development of a vaccine to protect against novel coronavirus or Covid-19 infections. CureVac, with an office in Boston, was one of several companies and academic labs in the U.S., Europe, and Australia that CEPI funded for Covid-19 vaccines.

On 2 March, CureVac’s CEO Daniel Menichella was one of several pharmaceutical and biotechnology executives to meet with Trump, Vice-President Pence, and cabinet officials on the then emerging Covid-19 crisis. Nine days later, Menichella abruptly left CureVac, with Hoerr, the company’s board chair, stepping in as CEO. Yesterday, the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag and Reuters reported from unnamed German government sources that the U.S. was trying to secure exclusive access to CureVac’s work to produce a vaccine only for the U.S.

Welt am Sonntag also reported that the U.S. offered large financial incentives, as much as $1 billion, to bring the work to the U.S., and Reuters later in the day confirmed with German officials that the Trump administration is looking into gaining access to the vaccine. The New York Times confirmed with Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, that the government is discussing ways to keep CureVac in Germany, calling the crisis “a matter of national security,” to protect the country’s medical products and medicines.

Reuters says U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, responded on Twitter that “The Welt story is wrong,” but another U.S. official told the news service, “This story is overplayed,” in effect confirming the basics, adding, “We will continue to talk to any company that claims to be able to help. And any solution found would be shared with the world.” CureVac says in a statement yesterday the company, “abstains from commenting on speculations and rejects allegations about offers for acquisition of the company or its technology.”

The Trump administration apparently hasn’t yet figured out that science is international and collaborative, particularly the life sciences. Given the speed and scale of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s plenty of work to go around, and U.S.-based pharma and biotech companies are hard at work on vaccines and treatments, with clinical trials expected to start shortly. The last thing anyone needs right now are countries erecting barriers against sharing research results that can guide this important ongoing work.

There’s an expression today that says, “Stay in your lane,” meaning don’t mouth off or get involved in things you know nothing about. My late Dad expressed the same idea decades ago mixing English and Yiddish to say, “Mind your own fershtukene (stinking) business.” Trump as well should mind his own fershtukene business, sticking to things like casinos, instead of interfering with life-saving work being done in biotechnology labs.

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