Berlin dismisses plan to issue emergency permit for German-made Curevac jab

Federal health minister Jens Spahn insists he will wait for EMA approval of Curevac, expected in May or June

 German health minister Jens Spahn: “There’s no data yet, so it’s not possible to issue an emergency permit.” Photograph:  EPA/Clemens Bilan

German health minister Jens Spahn: “There’s no data yet, so it’s not possible to issue an emergency permit.” Photograph: EPA/Clemens Bilan

 

Berlin has quashed speculation it is to issue an emergency permit for the German-developed Curevac vaccine, insisting it will wait for approval from the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Pressure to expedite the rollout of Curevac, based on similar mRNA technology to BioNTech, comes as the EU pivots away from traditional “vector” vaccine technology used in the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

On Thursday Germany’s federal health minister Jens Spahn insisted he would wait for EMA approval on Curevac, expected in May or June. “There’s no data yet, so it’s not possible to issue an emergency permit.”

As a third wave of Covid-19 squeezes German intensive care capacity, almost 18 per cent of the population has been given at least one jab.

Similar to elsewhere in Europe, Germany’s vaccination schedule has been thrown into chaos by the indefinite suspension of the Johnson & Johnson rollout amid concerns over rare but serious blood clots.

Similar concerns have prompted Germany’s decision to restrict the AstraZeneca vaccine to over-60s.

Given these difficulties, Social Democratic (SPD) health spokesman Karl Lauterbach called for a national permit for Curevac, developed in Tübingen in southern Germany, as a way to ease “massive pressure” on the health service.

“If Curevac works similarly well to BioNTech or Moderna, which is to be expected, the vaccine should be approved as quickly as possible and deployed,” said Dr Lauterbach, a respected health expert and medical doctor. “Things take too long with EMA, as we saw with BioNTech.”

Genetic code

Similar to BioNTech and the US Moderna vaccine, Curevac is based on innovative messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. Unlike traditional “vector” vaccines, which deliver a harmless variant of the virus to trigger an immune response, mRNA vaccines deliver genetic code into human cells, instructing them to produce components of the targeted virus.

While the UK prioritised the AstraZeneca vector vaccine, co-developed with Oxford University, Germany’s federal government invested heavily in mRNA research and development of BioNTech and Curevac.

Last June Berlin took a 23 per cent stake in Curevac, through an investment of €300 million, and also provided  €375 million in capital for BioNTech.

Though BioNTech was the first mRNA vaccine to market, Curevac scientists say its two-jab product is more flexible as it can be stored for three months at regular refrigerator temperatures.

After rebuffing a buy-out offer from the Trump administration last year, Curevac chief executive Franz-Werner Haas says its Europe-focused production and delivery will deliver 300 million doses this year and a billion next year.

Reliable partner

On Wednesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced an additional 50 million BioNTech doses for the EU, and praised the Mainz-based company as a “reliable partner”.

Her commission would, she said, in future “focus on technologies that have proven their worth”.

A commission spokesperson declined to comment on reports on Thursday that next year Brussels will lapse its contracts with vector-vaccine producers Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.