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How vaccine laggard CureVac hopes to come out on top

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Fifteen years ago, after an hour-long meeting in the basement of a Paris hotel, Bill Gates agreed to back a German entrepreneur who claimed a new class of drug would revolutionise the fight against infectious diseases.

When Covid-19 shook the world last year, CureVac — the company built by Ingmar Hoerr with the help of the Microsoft founder’s money — seemed perfectly positioned to make good on that investment and produce a “best-in-class” vaccine.

It could be ready “by the autumn”, predicted European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

But while local rival BioNTech and US competitor Moderna brought to market vaccines using similar messenger RNA technology in less than a year, CureVac’s product is lagging up to six months behind.

Ingmar Hoerr, founder of CureVac © Imago images/ULMER Pressebildage

This is the story of how one of the most promising vaccine makers is trying to get back on track after development delays, the brain haemorrhage of its founder and a bizarre — possibly fictional — attempt by the White House to steal the company away from Germany.

‘America first’ again?

Following a meeting with pharma executives at the White House in early March, German media reported that the Trump administration had sought to lure the company, which also has a Boston base, to the US and secure its vaccine exclusively for Americans.

The news led to an uproar in Berlin, especially after billionaire Dietmar Hopp, CureVac’s lead investor, seemed to verify the reports in a magazine interview. 

Days later, CureVac’s American chief executive Daniel Menichella abruptly left the company, even though the biotech denied an official approach by the US government had ever taken place. The Trump administration also rubbished the reports — in one of the few public rebuttals by the former president’s staff against a reported “America first” policy stance.

Dietmar Hopp, lead investor of CureVac © Getty Images

Amid the turmoil, Hoerr, the company’s founder who had just taken over from Menichella as chief executive, suffered a brain haemorrhage in a hotel room, and relinquished the role again.

Venture capitalist Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach, who sits on CureVac’s board, told the Financial Times that the Trump tale was probably “made up” by people leaping to conclusions about the presence of a German company at a US government event. 

But the reports were enough to spook European leaders. On March 16, von der Leyen spoke to CureVac’s management via video conference, and then publicly offered the 20-year-old company an €80m loan “to quickly scale up development and production of a vaccine”. 

By mid-June the German government had chosen to invest €300m in CureVac, for a 23 per cent stake, ahead of its flotation on the Nasdaq in August. Economy minister Peter Altmaier left little doubt as to Berlin’s motives: “Germany is not for sale, we don’t sell our silverware,” he told reporters.

Former US vice-president Mike Pence, centre, meets drugmakers last March © Eric Baradat/ Getty Images

Suggestions that CureVac’s investors may have spread the Trump tale to engineer a response from Angela Merkel’s government were strongly denied by people close to the company.

“It was not the plan to get German public money,” said von Bohlen, who first invested in the nascent company in 2004, and whose holding company, Dievini Hopp, created with Hopp, still owns half of CureVac. 

In any case, the company was unlikely to up sticks. When Hopp, a co-founder of tech group SAP, first agreed to invest roughly €2m in CureVac in 2005, he wanted to “make sure that we build infrastructure and new jobs here in Germany”, von Bohlen recalled.

Waiting for data

There was some rationale behind the German government’s investment, however. CureVac, which was developing a rabies vaccine when the Covid-19 crisis began, had more experience with infectious diseases than BioNTech. 

Some scientists also believed that CureVac, which unlike its rival does not chemically modify its mRNA, could end up prompting a stronger immune response.

But an initial readout from phase 1 trials in November damped the high expectations. The data showed that the level of antibodies produced by the vaccine was higher than the average in the blood samples of recovered Covid-19 patients, but appeared to be lower than those produced by the BioNTech and Moderna’s candidates.

However, as each company’s results were measured using different assays and against a different group of convalescent patients, they were not directly comparable, according to Suzanne van Voorthuizen, an analyst at Kempen. “You are always comparing apples with oranges,” she said.

The inconclusive data did not deter the European Commission, which signed a contract to secure 405m doses soon thereafter. Manufacturing deals with Germany’s Wacker Chemie and Rentschler followed in the next few weeks, as well as with France’s Fareva.

CureVac also raised $517m via a share offering and its shares trade more than six times last August’s IPO price. Twice in the last few weeks the company’s market value has surpassed that of Deutsche Bank and now stands at about €16bn.

Line chart of Rebased to Aug 2020 showing Vaccine makers' share prices

“In two years from now, nobody will care any more [about the delay],” said von Bohlen. “Capacity, quality and price — that is what everyone will care about,” he added, predicting that regular vaccinations would be required to protect against virus mutations and that CureVac’s mRNA technology would be ideally suited to that challenge.

An initial readout from large-scale phase 3 trials is expected in March, and although CureVac has given up on pursuing US authorisation, citing market saturation, approvals from the EU regulators will probably come halfway through 2021.

Competitive advantages

Being behind in the race to produce an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine could also end up being a blessing in disguise for CureVac, according to founder Hoerr, 52, who is recovering from his health crisis. He claims time spent perfecting the formulation of its candidate has given its product several competitive advantages.

Unlike vaccines by BioNTech and Pfizer, which currently have to be kept at an ultra-cold -70C while being shipped, and Moderna’s product, which must be kept at -20C, CureVac’s candidate is able to survive in standard fridge temperatures for at least three months, making it much easier to deliver to the developing world. “That’s not a miracle,” said Hoerr. “That is technology. You have to work on that.”

Additionally, at 12 micrograms per dose, it requires the smallest amount of active ingredient among the mRNA vaccines, enabling more efficient distribution.

Bar chart of Covid-19 shots under contract (doses bn) showing Vaccine makers race to supply the world

CureVac, which claims to be able to produce 300m doses this year and a further 1bn in 2022, spent extra time scaling up its manufacturing network.

The positive assessment is shared by pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, which bought a 9 per cent stake in CureVac in July and earlier this month pledged a total of €150m to develop so-called “next-generation” Covid-19 vaccines with the company to tackle new variants.

The UK government has also agreed to provide CureVac with access to its genomic sequencing expertise. In exchange, the UK will receive 50m doses of the biotech’s jab and permission to use contract manufacturers to produce it in Britain.

“The UK is one of the most advanced countries in understanding mutations and sequencing them,” said Wassili Papas, a portfolio manager at German institutional investor Union, which has a small stake in CureVac. “So for them to choose CureVac, there must be something to it.”

CureVac’s ambitions were given its biggest boost to date in early January, when German pharma group Bayer agreed to help with the production and approval of the Covid-19 candidate — the first foray into vaccine development in the company’s 158-year history.

Bayer told the FT that the agreement was a “one-off” and that the company “just wanted to help”, denying suggestions that Merkel’s administration had pushed for the partnership.

Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach
Venture capitalist Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach sits on CureVac’s board © Andreas Riedel

The German government told the FT that it “explicitly does not exert any influence on the operating business of the company via its shareholding”, while von Bohlen said Berlin was first informed by the companies of the agreement after the deal was closed.

Nonetheless, in a government press conference last month, Armin Laschet, the newly elected head of Merkel’s party and the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is home to Bayer, was clear about the deal’s significance.

“We need to recognise how important it is at this moment not to be completely reliant on the global market,” he said, “but also to be able to independently produce in Germany.”

Two weeks ago, CureVac began submitting approval data to the European regulator, and with the first batch of doses secured by the EU, the vaccine could also offer the bloc a chance to repair some of the political damage caused by the much-criticised procurement of the BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs.

If successful, the company built by Hoerr, who has reportedly been nominated for a Nobel Prize, could even eclipse Bayer’s €64bn market value, said von Bohlen, and along with BioNTech, reshape the entire sector.

“MRNA has the potential to become, by orders of magnitude, the broadest therapeutic class in medicine,” he said. “It’s a bit of a revival of the German strength in the pharmaceutical industry.”

The bar chart in this article has been amended since original publication to correct a rounding error



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Analysis

Signs of inflation emerge as Chinese producer prices leap

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For investors and governments eager to spot any sign of inflation as the global economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese factories are a good place to look.

The country this week released figures showing that the price of raw materials and goods leaving its factories rose 6.8 per cent year on year in April, its fastest pace of growth in more than three years.

For almost all of 2020, China’s producer price index was in negative territory as Covid-19 suppressed demand. The recent and sudden rise was partly driven by the comparison with a year earlier and, with consumer price rises still below 1 per cent, the overall inflation picture remained mixed.

But the data was nonetheless a sign of pockets of price increases emerging across China’s rapid recovery, where higher overall inflation is expected this year. It also reflected a global rally in commodity prices that has been supported by China’s voracious demand as well as hopes that other big economies will bounce back, too.

“A combination of China and external factors led to this PPI surge,” said Robin Xing, chief China economist at Morgan Stanley. “It’s like a perfect storm.”

Line chart of Producer Price index showing Producer prices in China rise at the fastest year-on-year pace since 2017

China’s PPI index is made up of prices of producer goods, such as wardrobes or washing machines, that factories sell to shops before they are sold on to consumers.

It also includes the prices of raw materials and commodities, such as coal, when they are sold from extraction companies to businesses that use them to make goods.

It was the latter that drove the recent surge in Chinese producer prices. Global commodity prices, which collapsed last year in the early stages of the pandemic, have since rebounded. Iron ore this week hit its highest level on record, while oil prices have recovered sharply from last year.

Xing estimated that 70 per cent of the April PPI increase was driven by commodities. That rally was also tied to China’s recovery, which has been backed by strong industrial growth and a construction boom that led to record output of steel last year.

As such, the data reflected both the pace of China’s recovery as well as a global commodity rally that it helped fuel and now extends beyond it.

For policymakers, one crucial question is whether higher producer prices will feed through to consumer prices. China’s consumer price index was just 0.9 per cent in April — its highest level in seven months, but far from a level that would generate immediate fears of broader inflation within China.

While economists expect a rise in CPI inflation in China this year, they suggested that any reaction from the People’s Bank of China to this week’s data was unlikely. The portion of the producer price index that represents the prices at which businesses buy consumer goods, as opposed to raw materials, was up only 0.3 per cent year on year.

Analysts at HSBC said transmission from PPI to CPI would be “limited”, allowing policymakers to remain “accommodative”.

Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, forecast CPI inflation to rise to 2.8 per cent by the end of the year, with “pass-through” effects from PPI. But he suggested that the PBoC was unlikely to tighten in response to PPI, and that higher raw material prices instead posed a risk to Chinese demand and the wider recovery given controls on credit availability.

“For a typical borrower, $1bn six months ago may be enough to buy steel and cement to finish one project, but today it’s [maybe] not,” he said.

While the PBoC has not increased official rates since lowering them last year, the Chinese government has nonetheless tightened credit conditions over recent months.

It has also taken measures to rein in both its property sector, on concerns that easier money would encourage asset bubbles, and its steel sector, which has churned out the metal at a rate that threatens Beijing’s environmental commitments.

China’s gradual decarbonisation ambitions — and any production cuts they lead to within the country — are seen as constraints on supply, buoying the price of commodities further. 

Beyond raw materials, economists are closely watching other shortages. Iris Pang, chief economist for greater China at ING, said producer price inflation would be followed by chip inflation. A shortage of semiconductors, she said, was already beginning to drive price increases for consumer products such as washing machines and laptops.

Line chart of Per cent  showing Producer prices for consumer durables are gathering momentum this year

While the PPI index showed a much weaker increase in consumer goods than for raw materials, on a month-on-month basis there were notable rises. Durable consumer goods were up 0.4 per cent month on month in April, the fastest pace of growth since at least 2011, according to CEIC, a data company.

Apart from domestic construction, part of the demand for raw materials has been to drive the production of goods for export to western countries.

Data on Friday showed Chinese exports leapt 32.3 per cent year on year in April. But even when compared with April 2019, before the pandemic, the rise was about 16 per cent on an annualised basis, Morgan Stanley estimated.

Competition between producers in China meant this did not necessarily imply inflation for consumers overseas. Instead, China’s recent PPI jump hinted at just one of the global effects of western responses to the pandemic.

“If you try to figure out what is the end demand here for this PPI recovery, it is global stimulus,” said Xing. “External demand led to China’s export recovery, [and] now it’s far beyond its potential growth”.



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Analysis

Covid batters India’s aspiring middle classes

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When Ram Prakash died after a feverish and breathless week, his wife and 16-year-old daughter’s heartbreak was compounded by fear that the modest middle-class safety net he had knitted together might be ripped apart.

The 53-year-old, a tax adviser to local businesses, was one of the millions who had joined India’s fast-growing middle class in recent decades. Their rising incomes, better education and consumption powered one of the great global economic success stories.

But the calamitous second wave that claimed the life of Ram, the family’s breadwinner, has shattered the Prakashes’ hopes for the future. “Our life was going good but now it’s all over,” said Uma, his widow.

Economists warned that the latest outbreak could have long-term ramifications for middle-class Indians, whose rising consumption was expected to be the country’s growth engine for many years.

“India, at the end of the day, is a consumption story,” said Tanvee Gupta Jain, UBS chief India economist. “If you never recovered from the 2020 wave and then you go into the 2021 wave, then it’s a concern.”

India reported more than 320,000 Covid-19 infections and 3,800 deaths on Monday. Experts maintain that both figures are vastly undercounted.

The disease has heaped suffering on Indians irrespective of background. Yet this time, it has also hit hard an aspirational middle class whose newfound privilege previously helped shield them.

A lack of oxygen has been blamed for thousands of deaths © Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty

Public-health experts pointed to signs that after widespread infection among the urban poor last year, sectors of society including the comparatively affluent were more vulnerable this time round. This was compounded by the near-collapse of private health services on which they relied.

“You’re affluent but you can’t get a hospital bed. You’re affluent but you can’t get oxygen,” said Saurabh Mukherjea, founder of Marcellus Investment Managers. “That’s deeply disorientating.”

India’s middle class was already severely weakened by the recession that followed last year’s lockdown, even if they were better protected from the virus.

The Pew Research Center found that 32m people fell out of India’s middle class — defined as those earning between $10 and $20 a day — in 2020. That represented more than half of those added to the category since 2011.

Bar chart of Estimated change in number of people in each income tier due to the global recession (m) showing India’s poor grew while middle class shrank in 2020

India’s economy was expected to roar back before the second wave struck. For middle-class Indians on the brink, such as the Prakash family, this second shock may prove too much.

Ram, the tax consultant, had moved his family to a one-bedroom house in a humble New Delhi neighbourhood, bought a car and sent his daughter to a low-cost private school, hoping she could become a chartered accountant.

“He gave us so much when he was alive,” said Vasundhara, his daughter. “I only hope I will be able to continue my studies.”

Experts have debated what drove the high caseloads among middle class and rich Indians during the second wave.

Anup Malani, a professor at the University of Chicago, suggested that those populations proved more susceptible, especially as new variants spread.

In Mumbai, for example, studies last year found that about 50 per cent of slum residents had Covid-19 antibodies, compared with less than 20 per cent in more affluent surrounding neighbourhoods.

This is believed to have left the middle and upper classes more vulnerable, particularly to severe disease, researchers said. Doctors have reported similar trends elsewhere in India.

“The first wave largely infected poorer populations,” Malani and two co-authors wrote this month. The second wave “is disproportionately composed of individuals who are from non-slums”.

Bar chart of Estimated number of people in each income tier in 2020 before and after the global recession (m) showing The pandemic sets back growth of India’s middle class

Researchers said more data were needed but other susceptible populations could include those outside cities, such as in poor rural areas with shoddy healthcare where the virus was wreaking havoc.

The outbreak was so sudden that it overwhelmed even India’s best hospitals, including private facilities in cities such as Delhi or Bangalore.

Fewer than 1 per cent of Delhi’s 5,800 Covid-19 ICU beds are available, while crippling shortages of oxygen have contributed to countless deaths.

After Ram Prakash’s oxygen levels dropped, his family spent two frantic days ferrying him to six separate hospitals — both private and public — in a desperate bid to find treatment.

In the end, they brought him home. Ram died on April 27.

Uma and Vasundhara fear economic ruin. They have a shortfall of Rs30,000 ($408) to meet immediate expenses, including school fees and the mortgage on a neighbouring unit that Ram bought as an office.

“Right now our worry is just to survive, to get food and meet our daily expenses. But there won’t be enough,” said Vasundhara.

They plan to sell their car and Uma, a former Sanskrit teacher, wants to find work again. But they worry hopes of a better life are over.

“We had never imagined this could happen to us,” Vasundhara said. “We just can’t get our head around this.”



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Reeves promotion underlines Labour shift to centre ground under Starmer

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When Sir Keir Starmer promoted Rachel Reeves to shadow chancellor late on Sunday night it emphasised his determination to defy the left of the Labour party and move in a more “centrist” direction after a series of disappointing local election results.

Reeves is unpopular with many “Corbynista” members — supporters of the party’s former hard left leader Jeremy Corbyn — because of comments she made in 2013 when she was shadow work and pensions secretary. That controversial moment saw her promise to be “tougher” than the ruling Tories on benefit costs.

Her role as vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel is also contentious among many Corbyn supporters who oppose the actions of the Israeli government. And while other MPs agreed to serve on the Labour front bench under the Corbyn leadership in 2015, Reeves was one of a handful who refused to do so.

Starmer first considered making Reeves shadow chancellor when he became leader in April last year — only to drop the idea, fearing that it would prompt a backlash from left-wingers.

Yet it would be wrong to characterise the 42-year-old MP for Leeds West — a former junior chess champion — as a “Blairite” or “rightwinger” even in Labour terms.

Sir Keir Starmer promoted Rachel Reeves in a reshuffle of his front bench on Sunday © Stefan Rosseau/PA

During the last parliament she chaired the business select committee, a position she used to interrogate corporate failure by Carillion, the collapsed contractor. She meanwhile struck out as a writer, penning two books about female MPs.

In 2018, she used a speech in London’s East End to call for a new series of wealth taxes to raise more than £20bn a year — shifting the fiscal system from income to property. The then shadow chancellor John McDonnell resisted the idea, amid concerns over a backlash from middle class Labour voters.

Indeed, there was a moment in 2019 when some of Corbyn’s aides — including policy adviser Andrew Fisher — advocated bringing Reeves into the shadow cabinet.

Sharper edge but no shift in strategy

In the short-term her promotion to one of the most important roles in the shadow cabinet may give a sharper edge to Labour’s top team but not necessarily bring a shift in strategy.

That is because the party creates its election manifestos through a drawn-out process called the “national policy forum” over several years.

Starmer has eschewed creating new policies on the hoof in favour of a focus on rebranding, telling voters Labour is “under new management” after the electorally disastrous Corbyn, who lost two general elections in 2017 and 2019 — the latter by the biggest margin in nearly a century.

The opposition leader’s popularity rose last year as he forensically attacked the ruling Conservative government over pandemic failures. But with the Tories enjoying a bounce from the vaccine rollout, he was criticised during the local elections for a lack of a positive policy vision. Some Labour insiders blame that for the setback at the polls — in which the party lost 326 council seats and was defeated in the Hartlepool by-election.

On Monday, many colleagues were positive about the promotion of Reeves after a year in which she has been one of the most high-profile figures on the front bench.

As shadow Cabinet Office minister, she took the fight to the Conservative government over its spending on personal protective equipment — expressing anger at the many contracts given to Tory contacts. She has also kept up the pressure on the Conservatives over the Greensill scandal.

Colleagues said as shadow chancellor she will emphasise the need for Labour to show it can be trusted to run the economy — an area of traditional political weakness for the party.

‘Competent and sensible on the economy’

That would continue the theme set by Dodds, who said in a speech in January — using the word “responsible” 23 times — that Labour would offer “responsible economic, fiscal and monetary policy”. The Starmer team has already distanced itself entirely from Corbyn’s 2019 election manifesto, with £83bn of annual public spending increases.

In an interview with the Financial Times last year Reeves struck a similar tone, saying the party needed to be “competent and sensible” on economic matters.

Yet she is not expected to return the party to the “austerity lite” approach of Ed Balls, shadow chancellor under former leader Ed Miliband, who promised not to increase borrowing even for capital expenditure.

One ally said Reeves could be expected to draw up a “transformative” programme — involving changes to the tax system and the decarbonisation of the economy — while also reassuring the public that Labour would spend people’s taxes wisely.

The decision to shift Angela Rayner, deputy leader, from her job as party chair plunged the reshuffle into chaos at the weekend © Jacob King/PA

Starmer’s reshuffle at the weekend was thrown into chaos after allies of Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, leaked she was being demoted from her job as party chair after the local election failures. The ensuing political storm overshadowed some more positive electoral results on Saturday in cities such as Manchester, London and Bristol.

Rayner turned down the job of shadow health secretary and instead took Reeves’s old job as shadow Cabinet Office minister as well as “shadow secretary of state for the future of work”.

Deep discontent

On Monday, after a two-hour shadow cabinet meeting, Starmer was seen buying a coffee at Westminster with Rayner in an attempt to put on a public show of unity after a weekend of acrimony.

Starmer’s bungled reshuffle has sown deep discontent among senior Labour MPs. “You can’t understand how angry people are,” said one. Allies of Rayner said she felt a “deep sense of betrayal”.

The reshuffle saw Dodds move to party chair and Alan Campbell promoted to chief whip with the departure of 70-year-old Nick Brown.

Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary and MP for Wigan, told colleagues she was convinced Starmer was planning to sack her and it was only a rearguard action by her supporters that persuaded him to drop the plan.

Nandy warned Starmer that she would quit the Labour front bench, rather than be demoted to another role.

Referring to the plans to demote first Rayner and then Nandy, one Labour MP said: “What genius would think it a good idea to demote not one but two women representing northern seats?”

 



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