Middle Hessen and the Corona crisis: healthcare innovations against viruses

Scientists around the world are racing to get the Corona pandemic under control. Research institutes and companies from Central Hessen are making major contributions and developing new long-term research strategies.

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The corona pandemic will probably go down in history as one of the most drastic health and economic crises of modern times – but, fortunately, it has also been a massive driver of digitization and innovation. After all, crises and the hardship they cause create a much stronger incentive for change than economically stable times. Both the healthcare system and the manufacturing industry benefit from this need.

As Dr. David Eckensberger reveals: “Hessen companies promptly managed this period of the pandemic to make a successful restart and to implement innovative internal projects.” Eckensberger is head of the International Affairs department at Hessen Trade & Invest GmbH (HTAI), the business development company of the State of Hessen. HTAI oversees the sustainable development of Hessen as a business and technology location in order to consolidate and expand its competitiveness. 

Following is an overview of a few of Hessen’s innovative companies.

Corona vaccine production in Marburg 

A vaccination against the coronavirus is one of the most promising approaches to get back to normal. For this reason, Mainz-based BioNTech, together with the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, was one of the first in the world to develop and successfully test a corona vaccine. Their vaccine was approved in Europe just before Christmas.
Their vaccine, “BNT162b2,”will soon be produced on a large scale at the Novartis plants in Marburg. BioNTech had already taken over the Novartis production facility in September 2020. Once the purchase is complete, the facility could produce up to 250 million vials of BNT162b2 in the first half of 2021. Then up to 60 million vials per month when fully operational.

million vials per month

BioNTech announced the first interim results of the phase 3 test in mid-November. Their BNT162b2 vaccine offers more than 90 percent protection against Covid-19. In contrast to many of the other vaccine candidates, the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine is not based on the approach of confronting the immune system of the vaccinated with killed or weakened pathogens, or their components. Instead, the vaccine recipients receive parts of the virus’ genetic information in the form of messenger RNA. This vaccine could make Marburg, in Middle Hessen, one of the largest messenger RNA production facilities in Germany and Europe.

Sierk Poetting, CFO and operational manager of BioNTech, speaks of the advantages of this Middle Hessen location in a September 2020 press conference: “The location is fully equipped. With the facility’s 300 highly qualified employees, we can start producing the vaccine immediately.” This geographic location is also favorable for global distribution of the vaccine. Adds Dr. Eckensberger: 

The region offers a whole range of favorable factors: economic, social and logistical. The international hub in Frankfurt - the meeting place of important European rail and motorway routes and Germany's largest airport - is just an hour's drive away. This distance is negligible on an international scale.
Dr. David Eckensberger
Head of the International Affairs department at Hessen Trade & Invest GmbH (HTAI)

And there is another advantage, he adds: “With universities in Giessen and Marburg, and the Technical University of Middle Hessen, three institutions are available for top research and skilled workers – including those in the healthcare sector. ”

Cross-university vaccine development 

The Philipps University of Marburg, for example, is working together with researchers from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) on a corona vaccine. A clinical phase I study has been running since mid-October with the vector vaccine MVA-SARS-2-S. In the current phase, the doctors are investigating whether the active ingredient triggers a specific immune response and whether it is safe and tolerable. The total of 30 study participants are closely monitored. On the days after the vaccinations and during the following six months, the test subjects have to come regularly for outpatient follow-up examinations, according to the University of Marburg.

Meanwhile, the scientists from Hamburg and Marburg are also measuring the formation of antibodies and T-cells in the body in parallel, and comparing them with the immune response of recovered Covid-19 patients. This research cooperation shows how valuable cross-location work can be.

Strengthening networks

In addition, cross-industry networks can also help if business models no longer work due to a pandemic, explains Eckensberger. “Central Hessen has a strong network structure and the actors maintain a lively and trusting exchange. This business ecosystem is an ideal basis for business success and always provides new ideas for new businesses.” The region is also noted for close interaction and exchange with other Hessenn healthcare networks such as the Initiative Gesundheitswirtschaft Hessen (Healthcare Business Incubator of Hessen, or IGH) and the House of Pharma. In this way, all Hessenn networks can be accessed from Central Hessen. And thanks to the close cooperation between the Central Hessen Regional Management and Hessen Trade & Invest, it is also possible to ‘think outside the box’ about collaborations with other technological areas at all times. ”In the future,” adds Eckensberger, “such connections will become more and more important in order to utilize cross-sector synergies.” 

Covid-19 Plasma Alliance

Marburg-based biotech company CSL Behring has established a network of a somewhat different kind to develop drugs that could stop the Corona pandemic. Here, CSL Behring has joined forces with other leading global companies for this purpose. This research collaboration, virtually unique in the industry, aims to develop and deliver a blood plasma-derived potential therapy to treat patients with serious complications from Covid-19. The drug is to be called CoVIg-19, with “Ig” here standing for immunoglobulin therapy. For the drug’s development, the companies need blood plasma – including from people who have already survived Covid-19.

In addition, CSL Behring uses the plasma for a variety of life-saving treatments that help thousands of people every day. According to the company, around 16,000 chronically ill people are currently being treated with blood plasma, including people with immunodeficiencies that can be treated with plasma.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, plasma donations are currently running out. Therefore, the companies are urgently calling for donations.

Accelerated vaccine development cycle

At the same time, Darmstadt-based Merck, located in southern Hessen, is also involved in vaccine projects. To this end, Merck supports scientists all over the world in their research against Covid-19. “Our commitment ranges from the provision of raw materials and products for research to the development of manufacturing platforms for large-scale production,” explains Ranjeet Patil, Head of the Cell & Gene Therapy segment, in an interview.

“To combat this pandemic, we will have to produce an unprecedented amount of vaccine within a very short time,” Patil continues. “That means we need more than one vaccine to meet global demand. Our job is to focus on science and support all development programs to the best of our ability. We are currently doing that day and night.”

Safe equipment is essential for research and health

To safely carry out laboratory work, in general, and vaccine development, in particular, the correct equipment and laboratory equipment are required in addition to  scientific expertise. This is exactly where the Weiss-Technik company works. Based in Reiskirchen, the company offers tailor-made equipment for high-security laboratories, such as the one at Marburg Virology. As one example, Weiss-Technik developed microbiological safety workbenches especially for use in laboratories of this type, to enable the safe handling of hazardous, infectious and toxic substances. The Marburg virologists headed by Professor Stephan Becker use this design, among others, for research on a corona vaccine

Eckensberger considers this type of regional cooperation to be extremely useful, “The crisis revealed the vulnerability of global supply and value chains, “ he says. “Here companies should analyze very precisely how they are positioned and what measures should be taken to minimize one-sided dependencies and, if possible, to strengthen regional supply chains again – and Central Hesse is certainly a good location for this.” Many economic experts assume that local manufacturing companies will emerge stronger from the crisis. Thus, the pandemic represents a development opportunity especially for small and medium-sized companies.

Fast results

One example of small-business development is the NanoRepro Company in Marburg, which specializes in rapid diagnostics, and now develops and produces a fast-result coronavirus test almost exclusively in Germany. This has given them a great advantage over  competitors during the crisis. Among other things, the company is currently offering three corona antigen rapid tests and is thus making its contribution against the pandemic since chains of infection can only be broken if infected people are discovered as quickly as possible. Rapid tests help here, even if they give slightly less exact results than a PCR laboratory test.

Since the beginning of November, a third antigen test has also been on the market and is listed at the BfArm (Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices). This test provides a result within just 15-20 minutes. Such speed allows doctors, medical specialists and nursing staff quick access to the test results of their patients.  And, in addition, NanoRepro offers an antibody test.

minutes until test result

Innovations in and against the crisis

“It is still far too early to give a real summary of the Corona crisis because we are still in the middle of a volatile overall situation,” says David Eckensberger. “What is already evident, however, is that the Hessen economy is generally well positioned, and most of the companies have done very well. From our point of view, this is shown particularly positively by the large number of inquiries for the areas of innovation support and advice on EU funding. I am excited to see what will happen there. ”

Read more about the challenges healthcare companies and start-ups are facing in the Corona crisis and how the HTAI can help in a detailed interview with Dr. David Eckensberger

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