CureVac, one of the pharmaceutical groups developing a potential vaccine for Covid-19, has ruled out selling its inoculation at cost, arguing instead for an “ethical margin” for shareholders.
The German company raised $213m in a US stock market listing on Friday and will put the money towards conducting trials for the vaccine.
CureVac’s approach uses messenger RNA technology, which aims to transcribe some of the pathogen’s genetic code into human cells in order to help them detect it. No mRNA vaccine has been approved by regulators, though rivals Moderna and Pfizer, along with the latter’s German partner BioNTech, are betting on it. CureVac says its jab could require lower doses.
“That would allow us to give a competitive price while still preserving some ethical margin,” said Pierre Kemula, the company’s chief financial officer, in an interview with the Financial Times.
“We can’t do it at cost. We have investors putting money for 10 years into the company so there should be a little return for [them],” he said. Mr Kemula declined to say what the margin would be, although he said prices would be dose-dependent and not cost-related.
Drugmakers have been under pressure to lower costs for Covid-related drugs or vaccines. Supply deals in recent weeks have laid bare significant price differentials in what drugmakers have been able to obtain from governments, which have been scrambling to secure early access to potential inoculations.
Prices range from about $3 to $4 a dose for the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, to $10 a dose for the Johnson & Johnson jab candidate. Moderna has priced some of its jabs at $74 a course. AstraZeneca and J&J have said they would not seek to profit from their vaccines, at least during the pandemic.
“Some [rivals] are injecting 100 micrograms [of active ingredient] for Covid,” added Mr Kemula. “We are testing 2, 4, 6, 8, micrograms for shots.”
He said this would enable the vaccine maker — 10 per cent of which was recently acquired by GlaxoSmithKline — to do more with less.
CureVac was rumoured to have attracted the interest of the Trump administration earlier this year. But Berlin moved to block any foreign takeover attempts by investing €300m in the company, acquiring a stake of 23 per cent. The executive reported to have been involved in those talks no longer works at CureVac.
The group, which plans to manufacture its vaccine in Germany and then ship it worldwide, is in talks with governments around the world and regulators including the US Food and Drug Administration, Mr Kemula said, with a focus on Europe.
“It’s all happening now in terms of governments trying to secure volumes for tomorrow,” he said. “Europe is a bit late securing volume, so there is a bit more urgency for Europe.”
A person familiar with talks between the EU and the vaccine maker confirmed the two were in active discussions, with CureVac not seeking to price its vaccine at cost.
The drugmaker is conducting phase one trials on 168 people. Messenger RNA competitors Moderna and Pfizer have already moved to phase three — the last step before regulatory approval.
CureVac is also working with Tesla Grohmann Automation, a unit of the Californian automaker it acquired three years ago, to develop RNA printers that could help manufacture the vaccine.
There are eight prototypes of the printer, which can produce about half a gramme of the vaccine each week, which Mr Kemula said could amount to a significant amount were large numbers of printers produced.
The work with Tesla could lead to “a spin-off, an affiliate, a joint venture,” Mr Kemula said.
He defended the company’s pricing strategy.
“You’ve very far from the classic high-margin business that rare diseases can be,” he said. Rare diseases are sometimes protected under orphan-drug laws that encourage research and development by cutting tax and creating lengthy monopolies.
“Mobilising the company around the cause is great, but it precludes the company from doing other things,” Mr Kemula said. “Having a small margin is fair.”