The respected German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported on March 8 that President Trump had offered a German biotech firm roughly $1 billion in exchange for exclusive access to a possible coronavirus vaccine the company is developing. The newspaper quoted an unnamed German government source who said Trump wanted the vaccine “only for the United States.”
I took special note of this story as it was corroborated by other news organizations. A couple of years ago, I assisted a philanthropist in writing an essay on the strengths and weaknesses of biomedical R&D in Germany. What I learned then helps explain why this story played out as it did, and why it hit Germany where it really hurts. Spoiler alert: The country’s tortured history was a factor.
The report in Welt am Sonntag set off alarm bells in the German Chancellery. “Germany is not for sale,” said the economics minister. “The American government has committed an extremely unfriendly act,” echoed a lawmaker.
The aftershock was felt also in Tübingen, the university town that is headquarters for the biotech said to be in play, CureVac AG. Three days later without explanation, the company announced that its American CEO of less than two years, Daniel Menichella, was out, replaced by the founder and chairman, who is German.
Menichella had represented CureVac at a March 2 White House meeting along with leaders of other pharma and biotech companies involved in finding ways to fight Covid-19. CureVac was the only German company invited. Vice President Pence presided, and the president briefly attended the meeting, from which the offer reportedly arose.
Five days after Menichella’s ouster, the European Union committed to loaning CureVac 80 million Euros (about $85 million) to help scale up its vaccine manufacturing capacity—and perhaps also to guarantee that the manufacturing happens in Europe.
Beyond these facts, the truth in all this is murky. CureVac denies knowledge of any offer from Trump. The White House has no comment. Menichella is not talking.
That the matter was taken very seriously in Berlin reflects the strain in U.S.-German relations in the Trump era. The Germans’ response also reflects a larger competition, fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, involving the U.S., Europe and China. Global leadership in biomedical R&D is no longer a matter merely of national pride, but also of national security, as The New York Times recently noted.
And there are special reasons why German leaders freaked out about maybe losing CureVac. Part of that has to do with the company’s ingenious technology, which may help accelerate development of new vaccines and therapeutics against many diseases.
CureVac was incubated at the University of Tübingen, where nucleic acids were first isolated in 1869, paving the way for the eventual discovery of DNA. In the 1990s, Tübingen scientists discovered ways to encode information in RNA molecules so that they mimic specific viruses and other pathogens, innocuously but enough for the body’s immune system to respond and produce antibodies. Vaccine development has long been a lengthy process of guesswork and trial and error. CureVac’s approach makes it more a matter of design.
Founded in 2000, CureVac is privately held and relatively small, with about 400 employees. It’s not the only company working with messenger RNA, and not even the only one in Germany. Another is BioNTech, based in Mainz. It’s focused mainly on developing individualized cancer treatments, but it also has a vaccine program using messenger RNA to target Covid-19.
CureVac enjoys pride of place within Germany, however, because it pioneered the messenger RNA technology, some of its products have advanced into clinical trials, and it uses naturally occurring RNA molecules, not genetically modified ones as at BioNTech and other companies. This has outsized importance in a country where public sentiment runs strongly against GMOs and other technologies with suspected biologic effects. As one knowledgeable German told me, “We’re afraid of our microwave ovens.” She was only half-joking.
The U.S. might covet CureVac more for its manufacturing capacity. During a March 17 conference call with journalists, company executives said its current facilities potentially could produce its coronavirus vaccine at a rate of 10 million doses at a time. A fourth manufacturing facility under construction might produce up to 1 billion doses at a time.
No wonder Menichella was invited to the White House. Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and expand four large facilities intended to quickly make large quantities of new vaccines and other medicines in the event of an epidemic or biologic attack. But the sites are ill-equipped to respond to Covid-19, The Washington Post reported on March 15. Two of the sites are not involved in development of a coronavirus vaccine, and the other two are playing only minor roles, deferring instead to private laboratories.
U.S. capacity for vaccine production could be a bottleneck, said Anthony Fauci, the head of infectious diseases at NIH, when he told Congress that deploying a Covid-19 vaccine would take 12 to 18 months. “If you don’t have the production capacity to make tens and tens of millions of doses, it may take even longer,” he said. Which helps explain why Germans were deeply offended by Trump’s apparent attempt to advantage the U.S. by luring away CureVac.
The offense also played on national anxieties, traceable to the mass murder and insanely cruel quasi-medical experimentation that occurred during the Nazi era in the name of science and eugenics. These historical scars are why Germany today is a relative weakling in the life sciences—which, in turn, is why enterprises such as CureVac are considered exceedingly important national assets.
Before World War II, the nation was a powerhouse of biomedical research, noted for heroes such as Robert Koch, considered one of the main founders of modern bacteriology. The very first Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1902 went to Emil von Behring at the University of Marburg for his discovery of a diphtheria antitoxin, which earned him the sobriquet “the savior of children.” German scientists predominated among Nobel laureates in medicine for the next four decades, taking the prize four times in the 1930s alone.
After 1939, however, they would win only once in the next 33 years, and that once for work done pre-war. Post-war, the U.S. and the U.K. have taken the honors far more often, sometimes for discoveries made by German-born scientists in exile.
With its scientific infrastructure largely destroyed and its scientific establishment massacred, disgraced or driven out, Germany set about rebuilding after the war by working from historic strengths in chemistry, mathematics, materials science and engineering—disciplines that would directly contribute to its emergence as a manufacturing and exporting superpower.
Still today, the life sciences are under-developed. A comparative study of the sector by the global consulting firm BCG concluded that Germany is not fully tapping its potential for life-sciences innovation. The study noted that the life sciences in Germany receive lower levels of government R&D funding than other fields of science and engineering. Also, that German laboratories are often ineffective at translating basic life-sciences research into product development.
Experts interviewed for the study blamed this disconnect on several factors, including a scarcity of researchers and other needed talent. Per capita in 2015, universities in the U.K. graduated about 80 percent more students than Germany in the natural sciences and mathematics. Although Germany produces Ph.D.’s at a comparable rate, the U.K. graduated 50 percent more Ph.D.’s in biology.
German science also suffers from the relative weakness of the nation’s research universities. None of them is among the top 25 in world rankings by Times Higher Education. The U.K. has three institutions in the top ten.
And less-than-stellar graduate education means Germany has a hard time attracting global talent. The country’s top-ranked university, LMU in Munich (ranked 32nd), reports that 17 percent of its students are international. That’s in line with other German universities, but globally the number is higher at almost all top institutions outside China. Enrollment at the U.K.’s top three—Oxford, Cambridge and University College London—averages 42 percent international.
The BCG study noted other issues, such as a lack of venture-capital funding. Independent venture capital is scarce in Germany compared with funding from corporations. But Germany lacks a large pharmaceutical industry to take interest in seeding startup and emerging companies. Bayer, the country’s largest pharma, does not rank in the top ten globally by most measures. It has become more a chemical company with its acquisition of Monsanto—which has distracted management with potentially many billions of dollars in liabilities for Frontline and another Monsanto herbicide, both suspected carcinogens.
Another limitation is the federal government’s long-standing policy of allocating a large share of R&D Euros for general operating grants to national research institutes. This approach tends to favor basic research, which is admirable as a long-term investment in new knowledge. But it may short-change applied research on pressing problems—such as fighting pandemics and preparing for future ones.
The government is aware of these shortcomings. It has increased support for R&D in recent years, and as a percent of GDP, Germany’s public funding now surpasses that of the U.S. There has been talk of creating something like DARPA, the U.S. research agency credited with giving rise to the Internet.
In the life sciences specifically, Germany launched a network of health institutes to coordinate advanced work against specific challenges, including infectious disease. The government also established a hub for international collaboration against antimicrobial resistance, one of the greatest threats to global health.
But Hitler casts a long shadow. As the nation endeavors to fully emerge from it in biomedicine—which has taken on new importance in light of Covid-19—news that the U.S. may be coming around to poach adds further tension to what’s already a scary time.