Many companies are researching a vaccine against the coronavirus. It’s also a bet on the billion dollar deal.
How to search for a vaccine worldwide
Jennifer Haller, 43, a start-up employee and mother of two teenagers, was the first to receive mRNA-1273 by syringe in her arm last Monday morning at the Kaiser Permanente Research Institute in Seattle. She is now the world’s number one subject looking for a vaccine against the coronavirus. The totally random face of a billion dollar race.
Contrary to what is common in the development of vaccines, the American biotechnology company Moderna does not extract mRNA-1273 from components of the actual pathogen. Rather, researchers copied the part of the corona gene code that creates a protein called “sting” and enables the virus to dock onto human cells. The artificially obtained messenger RNA is now the main component of the vaccine. If this is injected, the body produces the harmless protein on its own – and then the associated antibodies along with it. If the vaccinated becomes infected with the corona virus, the idea is that the antibodies are already waiting for the enemy and render them harmless. With the help of Hallers and three other subjects, the researchers want to find out in the coming weeks whether their path turns out to be feasible. If that works out? It is far too early for such a forecast.
Very few companies will be at the forefront and become world-famous
One thing is certain, however: there is a global arms race for a coronavirus vaccine. Just one day after Haller volunteered to inject the potential vaccine, Chinese state television announced that a research team led by Maj. Gen. Chen Wei, a leading epidemiologist at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, was scheduled to conduct a clinical trial. In the People’s Republic alone, 1,000 scientists are working on at least nine different treatment approaches.
According to the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, at least 47 vaccine projects have started worldwide. Not only biotechnology companies in Asia, the United States and Europe are looking for an effective means, but also universities and scientific institutes, including the German Center for Infection Research, the consortium “Opencorona” led by the Swedish Karolinska Institute, the Israeli Biological Research Institute, the Australian University of Queensland and the British University of Oxford.
They all agree that they want to solve the biggest medical problem these days, but above all it is a huge economic bet. One, two, maybe three companies will end up leading the way and developing a vaccine in record time. A research budget of a few million euros will turn into a billion-dollar deal, and companies and laboratories that perhaps hardly anyone knows today may become heavyweights on the stock market overnight.
Test monkeys are missing in California. Too many laboratories just need it
This competition started as early as January. Shortly after Chinese scientists deciphered the genome sequence of the novel corona virus and published it on the Internet, researchers all over the world downloaded the data set and fed it into their computers. What used to take months can now be calculated by special programs in days, if not hours: a digital model of the vaccine. A little later, the first liters are produced in the laboratory. The big hurdles are the necessary test series.
In Germany, the Paul Ehrlich Institute (PEI) advises companies on the development of vaccines and biomedical drugs for therapy. The PEI is responsible for the approval of clinical studies, i.e. human use of vaccines in Germany, and for the approval and testing of vaccines in Germany and Europe. The President of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Klaus Cichutek, considers it impossible that a vaccine will be approved in Europe this year.
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Most tests are first carried out on mice and then on primates. In California, says an investor, it is currently very difficult to get monkeys. Too many laboratories that are on a similar stand at the same time. If you lose a few weeks now, the race can be over quickly. The corona virus itself is also a problem for the researchers. Two or three of them now work in many laboratories, strictly separated from one another. Not that the research fails because the entire team has to be quarantined for 14 days because of a suspected case.
They have also sealed themselves off at Curevac, a company from Tubingen.
A poster hangs on the sliding doors at the company headquarters: “We are not rude, we are careful”, says the company in light blue-orange. “At the moment we do not shake hands and give everyone a smile.”
It is only spoken on the phone: “It hit us like a bus on Sunday morning,” said interim chief Franz-Werner Haas, in a short-term press conference last Tuesday. He means the report of the Welt am Sonntag, according to which US President Donald Trump wanted to buy a vaccine developed by Curevac exclusively for the United States – or the entire company. The excitement was accordingly great. In the meantime, the investors have given a rejection. Curevac has been known across the country ever since.
“We want to be among the first and one of the best,” said Haas, but he is happy that there is a lot of competition: “If there were more products on the market, there would be nothing better.” Some of the other companies took a different technological approach, so it cannot be ruled out that different patents will be registered almost simultaneously.
There is no doubt, however, that the very first will make the greatest money.
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