Berlin is seeking to stop a German company trying to come up with a vaccine against coronavirus from moving its research to the US, amid fears Washington may seek a monopoly on any breakthrough in the fight against the disease.
A German government source said that ministers were looking at ways to keep the company in question, biopharma group CureVac, in Germany.
On Sunday the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported that Donald Trump was trying to lure CureVac to the US with generous offers of money.
Welt quoted unnamed German officials as saying the president was doing everything in his power to acquire a vaccine for the US — “but only for the US”.
The report has reinforced fears in Berlin that countries could take an “every man for himself” approach to fighting coronavirus, rather than pooling resources and sharing potential scientific breakthroughs that would help to stop the disease.
A German government spokesman declined to comment on the Welt story. But the health ministry issued a statement saying the government had “a great interest in ensuring that vaccines and compounds against the new type coronavirus are also developed in Germany and in Europe”.
“With this in mind, the government is in an intensive exchange with the firm CureVac,” the ministry added.
German officials have pointed to Berlin’s law on foreign trade, under which the government can scrutinise bids from non-EU countries “if national or European security interests are at stake”.
A US official said the Welt story was “wildly overplayed”. He said the US government had spoken with more than 25 companies that claim they can help with a vaccine, and most of them had already received seed funding from US investors.
“We will continue to talk to any company that claims to be able to help,” he said. “And any solution found would be shared with the world.”
This month, CureVac reported on its website that its chief executive Daniel Menichella had been invited to the White House to discuss “strategies and opportunities for the rapid development and production of a coronavirus vaccine” with Mr Trump and members of his coronavirus task force.
In the press release, Mr Menichella was quoted as saying that the company was “very confident that we will be able to develop a potent vaccine candidate within a few months”. It said it hoped to start clinical trials early this summer.
A few days after the meeting, Mr Menichella left the company, which is based in the south-western town of Tübingen. He was replaced as chief by Ingmar Hoerr, CureVac’s founder.
Coronavirus business update
How is coronavirus taking its toll on markets, business, and our everyday lives and workplaces? Stay briefed with our coronavirus newsletter.
The Welt report kicked up a political storm in Germany. “The exclusive sale of a potential vaccine to the US must be prevented using all available means,” said Karl Lauterbach, health policy spokesman for the Social Democrats, the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s grand coalition government.
“Capitalism has limits,” he tweeted. “We can’t continue to be reliant on medicine from China and the US. Our policy on research needs to change.”
“It’s an ethical, not an economic or national issue,” said Bärbel Bas, deputy head of the SPD’s parliamentary group. “If there’s a vaccine, it must be available for everyone. Anything else would be a scandal.
“In a pandemic, it’s about everyone, not ‘America First’,” she added.