At the beginning of the Covid-19 vaccine development, then US President Donald Trump expressed great interest in bringing the German research company CureVac to the USA. But nothing came of it: the EU stepped in and the German state became the main shareholder.
But the mRNA vaccine from CureVac did not become the hoped-for success story. The original vaccine candidate failed in the last clinical study – at a time when similar products from BioNTech and Moderna had long been vaccinated worldwide. The Tübingen biotech company is still trying to get involved in the corona vaccine market. According to CureVac, it has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against BioNTech at the Düsseldorf District Court.
Fair Recognition for Intellectual Property
The Tübingen company is concerned with the intellectual property of four patents that have been infringed. They relate to the construction and production of the mRNA sequence required for the vaccines. CureVac spokeswoman Sarah Fakih makes it clear: "We clearly see CureVac's contribution, which made it possible to bring the BioNTech vaccine to market so quickly. We want our contribution to be recognized fairly." BioNTech has responded to the allegations with a written statement: "BioNTech respects intellectual property rights. BioNTech's work is original and we will vigorously defend it against all allegations of patent infringement."
At the beginning of the pandemic, the two German biotech companies were something of a silent competitor in the global competition for the vaccine. There was a kind of truce. In December 2020, the BioNTech vaccine was finally approved.
Why is CureVac filing the lawsuit now? "At the peak of the pandemic, we wouldn't have thought of bringing the matter up. Global vaccination campaigns, booster vaccinations: we didn't want to get involved in these measures. Now that there is better control over the pandemic, it was therefore the right time," says company spokeswoman Fakih. They have no intention of blocking or making access to the vaccine more difficult, Fakih said. The company has not filed an injunction, is not demanding a ban on patent use or a halt to production.
It's about money and "Hello, we're still here"
So what should CureVac be about? Manuel Kunst is a patent attorney and holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Freiburg. He hears from the lawsuit: “They want a piece of the pie. CureVac needs money. Other products are already in the pipeline, for example vaccines against cancer, and they are also working on secondary vaccines against COVID-19 – try that to come onto the market and show: 'Hello, we're still here too'."
Once a beacon of hope for the federal government, CureVac emerged from the pandemic as a loser. It still hasn't launched a product. While BioNTech makes billions in profits and in the first quarter of 2022 alone generated three times the previous year, CureVac continues to make losses: last year 412 million euros before taxes. Possible damages or license payments could ensure CureVac's survival. The Tübingen-based company has not yet revealed how high CureVac expects the required "fair remuneration".
network of patents
In drug research, it is common to protect one's own discoveries in the very early stages of research and even before trials begin. Curevac co-founder Ingmar Hörr registered the first patents for mRNA vaccination technology in 1999, a year before the company was founded. Rolf Hömke from the Association of Research-Based Drug Manufacturers (VFA) notes that patent law disputes have increased in recent years: "Not because companies have become more belligerent, but because the molecules or processes involved are becoming more and more complex. It's often difficult to judge , where the validity of one patent ends and that of the other begins."
There are already several ongoing patent disputes in connection with the approved mRNA vaccines against Covid-19. Attorney Kunst speaks of a veritable network of patent applications. The US pharmaceutical company Alnylam, which uses mRNA technology to cure diseases, has sued both BioNTech and Moderna for damages. So CureVac is not the first to go into litigation.
In most cases, however, patent lawsuits in the pharmaceutical industry ended in out-of-court settlements. That cannot be ruled out in the CureVac vs. BioNTech case either. In any case, CureVac has already achieved one thing: the company has started talking again.