When the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine began last year, a 20-year-old company in southwestern Germany was thought to be uniquely positioned to deliver one. CureVac was the first to use messenger RNA technology in medicine, and that’s now been deployed in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
But CureVac’s first-generation vaccine fell well short of the efficacy rates achieved by its competitors, and it hasn’t yet been able to put one on the market.
The BBC’s Victoria Craig sat down with the company’s CEO, Franz-Werner Haas, at the company’s Tubingen headquarters, where he said he’s not giving up and he believes a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline is helping.
The road to developing a COVID-19 vaccine has been a long one for CureVac, as its rivals continue to ship billions of doses to countries around the world. This company is still trying to boost its candidate’s efficacy. In June, CureVac said its vaccine was 47% effective in a late stage trial, and this month, it cancelled two manufacturing deals after other drugmakers boosted their own production. Haas explains, though, that he’s determined to keep going, and the more than $170 million partnership with GlaxoSmithKline announced in February has been a game changer.
“You know, when we started this entire endeavor, we have been 450 people, now we have 750 people to organize a clinical trial, which at the end of the day also included 40,000 subjects globally in a time where you are not allowed to travel,” Haas said. “We have never – and all the other mRNA companies also have never – been doing these kinds of phase three trials globally. You need a lot of expertise of people who have been doing it.”
Below is a transcript of Victoria Craig’s conversation with Franz-Werner Haas.
Victoria Craig: Do you worry that your vaccine won’t reach the required efficacy for approval?
Franz-Werner Haas: We see that the efficacy between 18 and 50, 60 year is pretty good with all the variants. The other thing is we are working on the second generation, and the later this approval is going to happen, certainly the less impact it has. And then suddenly, we have to take the decision, “oh, are we going to swap over full speed only in the second generation and concentrate on this one?”
Craig: CureVac has received hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, both from the German government, from the European Investment Bank. How has that helped you expand your presence and your capability to work on a vaccine at the scale? And do you think it will help?
Haas: Definitely, if you start to plan a clinical trial like this rapidly, you need to build up manufacturing, which is a huge investment. And then on top, you have to make your commitments to your suppliers. And this ends up in a significant up to a billion euro amount. And without this study, you cannot do it.
Craig: Your company recently went public in the U.S. You know there are pros and cons to being a public company. But if you publish disappointing results, you can see a negative stock price reaction. Do you worry how that could affect your ability to continue developing?
Haas: This is the first product. Yes, we have not been the first one, but we have high hopes that the data are good enough for approval, then we have to take a decision when is that we say now we’ll shift over to the second generation to be full speed. And then the multivalent and the next one. And the public listing brings you to explain. And of course, if you don’t have good news to report, it will have an impact on your share price. And if you then compare the share price to others and say the potential of the entire platform is there, we are just starting, I say, OK, do you want to be early or late?
Craig: There was a an interesting perspective that somebody published a month or two ago that argued you haven’t been able to have the efficacy that you want from the vaccine, because you have access to the supply chain to develop these kinds of vaccines that are already on the market. Maybe you should just make somebody else’s vaccine. What is your response to that to those kinds of arguments that you should just give up?
Haas: Well in the fields of innovation, if you give up, just … you didn’t hit your goal in the first place. And again, I think we hit the goal but not as good as others. Ingmar Hoerr and Florian von der Mulbe were starting this company 20 years ago, on this basis of the technology others are developing vaccines which is good – also you see that the efficacy of the other vaccines is is going down because of the variants. So we need to develop this further as the others need as well. Of course, we should not block something which is usable for others.
Craig: One of the other differences between your vaccine and the others is the cold storage requirement. Your vaccine could help get more doses to places in the world that need them the most – millions of people who haven’t even received their first vaccine.
Haas: This wasn’t the beginning, everyone is working exactly on this cold chain question. The vaccines have been very fragile … As with ours, you’re constantly trying to improve your vaccine, especially the stability. And so this is certainly key to bring it to areas where you don’t have the stable cold storage. And a lot of improvements already have happened. So I think within a year or two years, this completely will have changed.
Craig: So you’re working on the second generation vaccine at the moment? Do you expect that to be more effective than the first generation?
Haas: Yes, absolutely. So this is what we’re developing with GSK, GlaxoSmithKline, we had some pre-clinical studies, so non-human studies. And we clearly have been seen huge differences. When we started last year, there was not that much known about the virus, but also seeing the different variances who kicked in. So this knowledge is going to be on the development of the second generation as well. But there is certainly an entire program thereafter as well, what we’re doing with GSK that even think about to have multivalent vaccines that you’re putting different kinds of mRNA strains in the same vaccine with different kinds of variants, or later on to combine it with flu, for example, that you have got your yearly flu shot, and one piece of that one is also giving you a Corona next-version virus protection.
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