Brussels has entered into an ill-tempered diplomatic skirmish between Germany and the U.S. over a company that is developing a vaccine against coronavirus.
CureVac, a company based in the German town of Tübingen, hit the headlines over the weekend when Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper reported that U.S. President Donald Trump was attempting to snatch up exclusive rights to the business’s coronavirus vaccine, developed in cooperation with a publicly funded German institute.
While the report has pitched U.S. and German officials into a war of words, the European Commission said Monday it would offer the company a guaranteed loan worth €80 million “to scale up development and production of a vaccine against the coronavirus in Europe.”
After days of being identified as the bad guys in the EU coronavirus saga — for banning the export of medical equipment within Europe — German politicians are now queuing up for an opportunity to portray themselves as defenders of the public in Europe and beyond.
Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said “Germany is not for sale,” while Health Minister Jens Spahn on Sunday insisted to public broadcaster ZDF that CureVac would develop any potential coronavirus vaccine “for the whole world” and “not for individual countries.” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the Funke media group on Monday that “we cannot allow others to seek exclusive results.”
U.S. Ambassador to Berlin Richard Grenell, however, described the story as plain “wrong” and another U.S. official slammed reports about Trump’s grab for vaccine exclusivity as “wildly overplayed.”
“The U.S. government has spoken with many (more than 25) companies that claim they can help with a vaccine,” the official said. “Most of these companies already received seed funding from U.S. investors. We will continue to talk to any company that claims to be able to help. And any solution found would be shared with the world.”
Dietmar Hopp, the owner of the company, sought to put an end to the public fight on Monday saying the business would stay in Germany, but confirmed that Trump had sought to secure exclusivity rights. “It is not possible that a German company develops the vaccine and that it is used exclusively in the U.S. That was not an option for me,” he told Germany’s Sport1 when asked why he had refused an offer by Trump worth €1 billion.
Hopp, an investor whose fund holds over 80 percent of shares in CureVac, said in a statement on Sunday that “if we can soon develop an effective vaccine against coronavirus, this should be able to reach, protect and help people not only regionally but also worldwide in solidarity.”
“I would be glad if this could be achieved from Germany through my long-term investment,” he said.
But the company put out a contradictory statement on Twitter Monday lunchtime: “CureVac has not received from the US government or related entities an offer before, during and since the Task Force meeting in the White House on March 2. CureVac rejects all allegations from press.”
According to the Welt report, the German government is considering offering payments to keep CureVac in Germany. A health ministry spokeswoman said: “The German government is very interested in the development of vaccines and active substances against the novel coronavirus in Germany and Europe,” and added: “In this regard, the government is in intensive exchange with the company CureVac.”
While Germany’s politicians are happy to attack Trump’s “America First” politics, German politicians have had to weather heavy criticism in the past few days for adopting a “Germany First” approach in the coronavirus crisis by banning the export of protective equipment such as face masks to partner countries in the EU.
Reacting to that criticism, Berlin backtracked last week by easing its export ban and allowing the export of protective gear as long as its own needs are met.
This was still not enough for the European Commission, which threatened Germany with infringement proceedings. Only afterward did Germany agree — again — to change its export ban, although the specific changes have not yet been set out.
Matthew Karnitschnig and Jillian Deutsch contributed reporting
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