Coronavirus: EU head hopes for Covid-19 vaccine by autumn

Bizarre battle with Washington over vaccine maker culminates in €80 million research funding

President of European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, gives a press conference after EU leaders' video conference on COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, at the European Council building in Brussels, on March 17, 2020. / AFP / Aris Oikonomou
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The European Commission president has said she hopes a vaccine for coronavirus could be ready before the autumn as the bloc puts aside bureaucratic obstacles and races with the US and other geopolitical rivals to tackle the crisis.

Ursula von der Leyen, a former medical doctor, has said a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, known as Covid-19, could be prepared much faster in the face of the global pandemic.

Health authorities have said, however, that it would take another 18 months before the preventative medicine could be put on the market.

The EU has offered CureVac, a biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Tubingen, Germany, 80 million euros to develop a new vaccine to create immunity against Covid-19. The company has said it could begin trails with humans as early as June.

“I hope that with this support, we can have a vaccine on the market, perhaps before autumn,” Ms Von der Leyen said.

"As we are in a severe crisis, we all see that we are able to speed up any of the processes that are slow normally and take a lot of time and are very bureaucratic," Ms Von der Leyen told reporters later on Tuesday.

Representatives for CureVac have said a vaccine could be ready in time if the German regulator allowed it to fast-track its product. Developing a shot before the autumn would allow nations the opportunity to stop a second seasonal wave of the virus in its tracks.

However, national heath advisors across Europe and the United States have regularly warned a vaccine could not be prepared before the end of 2020.

Curevac has found itself at the centre of a spat between Europe and the United States after reports emerged in the German press that a US official had offered to pay for the rights to the Covid-19 vaccine.

A White House official was reported to have offered large sums of cash for the vaccine on the provision that it was “only for the USA”.

The biotech company has subsequently had to deny reports that the administration of US President Donald Trump had tried to get hold of the vaccine.

"There was and there is no takeover offer from the White House or governmental authorities. Neither to the technology nor to CureVac at all as a company," CureVac acting CEO Franz-Werner Haas said on Tuesday.

However it has emerged that the US airforce  flew 500,000 COVID-19 testing kits from Italy on a C-17 transporter to Tennessee on Monday as Washington uses its resources to fight the spread of the virus within its borders.

At the same time, specialist doctors and medical equipment have arrived in Italy ready to help tackle the sharp spike in people with the disease, which has overwhelmed medical facilities.

The doctors bring with them first-hand experience of dealing with the coronavirus, having previously helped to tackle the original outbreak in China's Hubei province that killed more than 3,000 people. Tough quarantine measures have seen the rate of new cases in China dwindle, while in Europe the outbreak continues to spread.