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VaccinesCurevac is working on the comeback
“Germany is not for sale.” These are the words of Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU). He said it in March of last year, when the then US President Donald Trump is said to have made preparations to secure the exclusive rights to the Covid-19 vaccine from the Tübingen-based manufacturer Curevac. The advance caused a lot of trouble in Germany at the time. Altmaier was not the only politician with whom he caused irritation. "German researchers play a major role in drug and vaccine development and we cannot allow others to gain exclusive access to them," says Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD).
The manufacturer itself and its main owner, the German billionaire Dietmar Hopp, rejected Trump. Hopp said at the time: "If we hopefully soon succeed in developing an effective vaccine against the corona virus, it should be able to reach, protect and help people not only regionally, but in solidarity around the world."
At this time, when Germany was in the first lockdown, the Tübingen-based company was the first great hope in this pandemic. It looked like Curevac was one of the first providers on the home straight to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. It was hoped for an important building block for a vaccine-based exit strategy from the pandemic. Because of the company's strategic importance, the German state even became a major shareholder in Curevac. The EU bought 405 million vaccine doses, Curevac went public in the US and got off to a lightning-quick start. It all looked pretty good.
It grew quiet around Curevac
But it turned out differently. All over the world researchers developed vaccines against the coronavirus under high pressure. Curevac fell behind and the company fell silent. Biontech from Mainz has meanwhile managed to secure a strong partner in the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Moderna was also faster, benefiting from the state institute NIH and the "Warp Speed" operation, which the Trump administration had launched to develop as much vaccine as possible as quickly as possible.
In addition, Curevac co-founder Ingmar Hoerr was absent due to cerebral hemorrhage in a crucial phase. The doctor of biology had been the company's supervisory board head since 2018 and returned to the company as CEO in March 2020. In an interview with Wirtschaftswoche, he said that he wanted to "get back on track and be more on the ground again with regard to the pandemic". Hoerr is seen as one of the driving forces behind the development of the mRNA technology on which the manufacturer's vaccine is based. He has been researching the field for more than 20 years.
The company itself points to the thorough development process as the reason for the comparatively slow progress. "At the beginning we invested a little more time and effort to select the best candidate," said Curevac spokesman Thorsten Schüller in an interview with Capital. You started with seven candidates, three of whom were shortlisted before agreeing on one. “In the end, we selected a vaccine candidate that is supposed to induce immunization at a very low dose,” says Schüller.
So it was also his own perfectionism that made Curevac slower than the others. Schüller also refers to the financial resources at the beginning of the pandemic: "It certainly plays a role that we did not have the financial possibilities at the beginning, such as Moderna, who received a lot of money from the US government in spring 2020." American companies received $ 483 million from the government agency BARDA in April.
Recently, however, the emergence of various mutants of the corona virus also delayed the process. In the phase III clinical studies that the vaccine is currently in, one must therefore “examine very precisely what type of corona it is,” says Schüller. The company representative also points out that the development of a vaccine normally takes about ten years - "if you now need one and a quarter or one and a half, it's still very fast". What you can see at the moment is an enormous acceleration in the development of new vaccines, even with the competition.
Curevac only made it into phase III clinical trials in December, thanks in part to the help of the pharmaceutical company Bayer. A little later, the two companies formed an official alliance - similar to Biontech and Pfizer. The aim of this cooperation and service agreement is to sell several hundred million vaccine doses worldwide. "The need for vaccines against Covid-19 is enormous," said Bayer Board Member Stefan Oelrich.
When the company made it into the test phase, Moderna and Biontech were already on the market, and the vaccines of the two competitors gave almost perfect results. In Europe, however, the absence of Curevac caused problems with the rollout of the vaccination campaign. The EU had counted on the Tübingen-based company to deliver quickly. Major shareholder Dietmar Hopp had already admitted in September 2020 that the company would not be the first to come onto the market with a vaccine - but the race for the best vaccine was far from over.
Is Curevac going uphill now?
But the market in the USA is now almost covered by Biontech / Pfizer and Moderna, and the EU would also have achieved the goal of vaccinating almost the entire population by the summer, even without Curevac - had it not been for unforeseen events, which made the interest in the material from Tübingen grow again.
According to its own statement, Curevac is currently negotiating with many countries about vaccine deliveries. CEO Franz-Werner Haas told Handelsblatt that the potential failure of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would raise international interest in Curevac again. As a result, the company again came into focus in Germany. Last week, SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach called for emergency approval for Curevac's vaccine; at least when the data allow it. Lauterbach also advocated circumventing the EMA's often lengthy approval processes and daring to go it alone on a national level.
But things could go fast now even without emergency approval. In May or June, data is expected to show if Curevac is safe and effective. Then formal admission should be applied for. Curevac is aiming to produce 300 million cans this year, and even around a billion in 2022. The company has already produced vaccines, "at risk," as company spokesman Schüller says. These could be delivered immediately after approval.
Curevac thinks in other dimensions
The Tübingen-based company will not all produce the large quantities targeted by Curevac itself, but rather at various locations with other partners. One is already thinking far beyond the approval, emphasizes Schüller. Even if the acute phase of the pandemic is over, the virus will continue to be there in its various variants. “You cannot rule out the possibility of mutations that make a new vaccine approach necessary.” There will also be further pandemics, possibly triggered by viruses that we have not yet heard of.
Curevac is currently preparing for this. And the mRNA technology that the company has chosen is the right one for this. Because it can be reprogrammed to other viruses relatively easily and within a few weeks. Schüller takes the automotive industry as a comparison - "like a platform on which you can build different models". The former front runner, who lost ground, could become a savior in an emergency. And: The race for the best vaccine is won on the long haul anyway.
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