4% Stake

Bill Gates Buys Into Vaccine Maker

Bill Gates Source AP Photos
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Gates Foundation investment in Curevac could produce vaccines that no longer require refrigeration, a bonus in the developing world.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $52 million in German biotech firm Curevac.
    • Curevac hopes the deal will help it can accelerate the creation of pioneering, life-saving RNA vaccines.
    • It is the Gates Foundation’s largest-ever single, direct investment in a private business.
  • Audio

    Audio

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A small German biotech company specializing in next-generation vaccine technology believes a $52 million (€46 million) investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help deliver its life-saving products to market more quickly.

Curevac, based in Tübingen, southwest Germany, said the investment, equivalent to a 4 percent stake in the firm, would allow it to deliver a vaccine to combat rotavirus, a frequent cause of diarrhea in developing countries, by as early as 2020.

The company specializes in so-called RNA vaccines, which its founders developed. RNA, ribonucleic acid, is a class of protein that cells use to communicate with each other. Researchers believe RNA can be an effective way to immunize people against influenza, rotavirus and possibly HIV.

The principle advantage of RNA vaccines as opposed to conventional vaccines is that they do not have to be stored cold, making them ideal for use in developing nations.

The Gates Foundation, the world’s wealthiest charitable organization with assets of $43.5 billion, has a stated aim of providing cheap, effective vaccines to the developing world. Bill Gates is a co-founder of Microsoft and the world’s richest man, according to Forbes, which lists his personal assets at $79.2 billion. The Curevac deal is the foundation’s largest-ever direct investment in a private company.

“The foundation can get vaccines developed and delivered to developing countries, and we can sell these products in the Western world.”

Ingmar Hoerr, Founder and CFO of Curevac

“This is a great synthesis – a win-win situation so to speak,” said Ingmar Hoerr, founder and CFO of Curevac. “The foundation can get vaccines developed and delivered to developing countries, and we as a company can sell these products in the Western world.”

RNA vaccines differ from traditional vaccines in that they do not involve administering a treated version of a virus or its antigens, which can elicit harmful side effects.

However, their effectiveness has not yet been proven in clinical trials.

But hopes are high that they soon will be. For example, in 2012 Curevac won a €2 million European Commission prize aimed at stimulating the development of new vaccine technologies. The company has also attracted investment and licensing deals from leaders in vaccine production, including French drug giant Sanofi Pasteur. In 2013, it had a net loss of €26 million ($28.5 million).

Curevac hopes that its first vaccine, protecting against rotavirus, will soon be on the market.

“Our time scale right now is that we will start production in the next 4 years and have the product out on the market by the beginning of 2020,” said Mr. Hoerr.

 

Bill Melinda Gates Foundation-01

 

Curevac is a good fit with the Gates Foundation. The charity tends to provide grants – it disbursed $3.9 billion last year – but has also invested on occasion in small biotech firms. This allows it to directly support development of new products.

Past recipients of investment from the foundation include the Indian company Biological E Limited, which is developing a string of vaccines targeting diseases such as typhoid, measles and polio.

The foundation invested in Curevac because German businesses are not allowed to accept donations.

As part of the deal, the Gates foundation will receive no investment returns but will get a seat on Curevac’s advisory board and have the power to dictate which vaccines will be prioritized and where they will be distributed.

The foundation’s move has been welcomed by those working in vaccine development.

“I think this investment is very useful and a good thing,” said Volker Erdmann, a professor at the Free University in Berlin.

But he also noted that RNA vaccines were not the only option in the race to develop cheap and effective tools. “There are alternatives on the market which could use equal investments and are worth investing in,” he said.

Video: Owing to their robust nature, RNA-based vaccines are useful in hot climates.

 

Sarah Mewes is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact the author: mewes@handelsblatt.com

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