Government steps up funding for COVID-19 vaccine research

The German government is pumping funds into fast-tracking clinical programmes by three domestic pharmaceutical firms in an effort to step up the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek announced on 15 September.

According to the Federal Institute for Vaccines and Biomedicines, a substance for immunisation against COVID-19 could be approved and available by 2021.

In June, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) announced a special funding programme providing up to €750 million (US$885 million) to accelerate the development of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

BioNTech, a firm based in Mainz, is to receive €375 million, while a funding commitment of €252 million has been made to support development at the Tübingen company CureVac. Both the BMBF and the Federal Ministry of Health negotiated funding with the two firms. Talks with a third company, IDT Biologika in Dessau, Saxony, are still ongoing.

According to Reuters, both BioNTech and CureVac are among the leading developers of experimental COVID-19 vaccines, based on molecules carrying a genetic code called messenger RNA (mRNA), and IDT Biologika is working on its own ‘viral-vector vaccine’.

All three companies were recommended for federal support by an advisory committee of experts in July. Funding is aimed at boosting clinical development, expanding capacities to conduct studies and raising production capacities for the vaccines which are to be tested.

This is meant to enable a greater inclusion of particular target groups in clinical tests in Germany. Thus many individuals could be vaccinated at an early stage in the course of the clinical tests. In addition, preparations could be made to speedily launch production both in Germany and worldwide as soon as a suitable vaccine has been found.

Karliczek emphasises that funding will be provided for all three phases of clinical development. In the first phase, small groups of people receive a trial vaccine, while in the second phase, the vaccine is given to members of groups with certain characteristics, such as health staff, or people of certain ages. In the third phase, vaccine is given to thousands of people to assess its effects regarding the disease it is meant to combat and also its possible side effects.

“The world may be waiting for a vaccine, but we won’t be cutting any corners,” said Karliczek in Berlin, announcing support for the firms.

Klaus Cichutek, president of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s Federal Institute for Vaccines and Biomedicines, cautions that phase three of testing will be crucial. But he is optimistic that a vaccine could be approved by next year. Karliczek and Health Minister Jens Spahn also believe that vaccination against COVID-19 will be available for a major proportion of the population by then.

However, Spahn stresses that vaccination will be voluntary. In Germany, 55% to 65% of the population would have to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Confident of reaching immunisation coverage

“We are very, very confident that we will reach sufficient immunisation coverage,” he said in Berlin.

Spahn explained that 40 million doses of the vaccine would be reserved for Germany, an amount that would cover even a high demand. “Nevertheless, should the need arise, just like other countries, we could also forbid exporting certain products in such a pandemic,” he added.

At international level, to support testing of a potential COVID-19 vaccine, Germany has raised its contribution to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) by €140 million and plans to provide an additional €90 million next year.

CEPI was launched in Davos, Switzerland, in 2017 as an innovative global partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil society organisations to develop vaccines to counter epidemics, and Germany pledged an annual €10 million over a four-year period to support the initiative.

CureVac is one of nine institutes and companies commissioned by CEPI to conduct research into a COVID-19 vaccine. One of its shareholders is the government-owned Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW) bank. Both CureVac and BioNTech (which is collaborating with the US Pfizer Inc) have already commenced clinical tests on humans, with CureVac working at a combined Phase I and II level and BioNTech at a combined Phase II and III level.

BioNTech and Pfizer plan to apply for an approval of their vaccine this October. They claim that, provided their application is successful, they could produce 100 million vaccine doses by the end of the year.

IDT Biologika is collaborating with the Brunswick-based Deutsches Zentrum für Infektionsforschung (DZIF or the German Center for Infection Research). The DZIF combines the research activities of more than 500 scientists and physicians from 35 research institutions, pursuing the common goal of accelerating innovation in medicine.

The centre cooperates closely with Germany’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Together with IDT Biologika, it had already been developing a vaccine to combat the MERS coronavirus which is now being tested on humans by a consortium of scientists and clinicians. This project also benefits from CEPI support. CEPI has provided up to US$36 million to tackle MERS.

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