The German government has promoted a fake news story asserting that the United States is trying to gain exclusive access to an experimental coronavirus vaccine being developed by CureVac, a German biotech firm. Pictured: A company car sporting the CureVac logo, seen in front of the firm's headquarters in Tübingen, Germany. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
The German government has promoted a fake news story asserting that the United States is trying to gain exclusive access to an experimental coronavirus vaccine being developed by a German biotech firm.
The story — which has sparked anti-American furor in Germany and elsewhere in Europe — has been swiftly debunked by the company, which denied that it had received financial offers from the U.S. government or any related entity.
The attempt to whip up anti-Americanism appears to be an effort by the German government to blunt public criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet for their lackadaisical response to the coronavirus epidemic.
On March 15, the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, in an article titled, "Donald Trump Poaches German Vaccine Company," reported that U.S. President Donald J. Trump had offered "a large sum of money" to buy the privately-held Tübingen-based company CureVac, which is working to produce a vaccine against the coronavirus.
The newspaper reported that according to anonymous persons within "German government circles" (deutschen Regierungskreisen), Trump wanted to "secure the drug exclusively for his country." The article stated:
"The U.S. president allegedly offered the German company a large amount of money to secure its work. In Berlin, there is talk of a billion dollars. What is particularly problematic is that Trump is doing everything possible to get a vaccine for the United States. 'But only for the USA,' says the federal government....
"Representatives of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Economy are negotiating with CureVac.... Germany, it can be heard in Berlin, is making financial offers to try to keep the company [in German hands].... CureVac itself refused to answer questions."
The story was quickly picked up and uncritically disseminated by print and broadcast media throughout Europe — and America. Nearly all quoted the Die Welt article verbatim without confirming the story on their own.
"Vaccine 'Only for the United States,'" Rheinische Post claimed. "Trump's Anti-Social Act," the Süddeutsche Zeitung complained. "The Insolent Attack on CureVac is a Wake-up Call for Germany," Die Welt's business correspondent, Anja Ettel, wrote in an unhinged rant. Der Aktionär, a German business and finance magazine, surmised: "For Trump, the vaccine would be a miracle cure with which he could score properly in his election campaign."
German politicians also reacted, also apparently without verifying the story. Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said, "Germany is not for sale." Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted: "We cannot allow a situation where others want exclusively to acquire the results of our research."
The head of the libertarian Free Democratic Party (FPD), Christian Lindner, said: "Such America-first thinking is really out of place here." German MP Karl Lauterbach, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), tweeted:
"The American government has committed an extremely unfriendly act. The exclusive sale of a possible vaccine to the USA must be prevented by all means. Capitalism has limits."
CureVac has repeatedly denied the allegations. In a March 15 press release, the company said that it "rejects allegations about offers for acquisition of the company or its technology." In a March 16 tweet, the company wrote:
"To make it clear again on coronavirus: 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."
The tweet was referring to CureVac's then-CEO, Daniel Menichella, who was invited to the White House on March 2 to discuss strategies for the rapid development and production of a coronavirus vaccine. He met with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force as well as high-ranking representatives of other pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell denied the allegations. "Not true," he tweeted. "The Welt story was wrong. But Business Insider, Reuters and others went with it anyway despite not having their own sources. Now everyone is back peddling."
An American official told Reuters: "This story is wildly overplayed... 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."
The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, in an article titled, "Curevac Has Not Received an Offer from the U.S. Government," described the Welt article as "Fake News" concocted by CureVac in order to secure government funding. The paper suggested that the German government helped to promote the lie:
"Is U.S. President Donald Trump displaying his true colors by following the motto 'America First' in the corona pandemic? The Welt am Sonntag reported that he wanted to secure access, with a lot of money, to the German biotech company Curevac. The allegations caused great excitement and harsh protest.
"High-ranking politicians in Berlin confirmed Trump's push to various media. Indirectly, the irritations were also reinforced by Chancellor Angela Merkel....
"In the meantime, Curevac has received a commitment of 80 million euros in funding from the European Commission."
Readers of the Die Welt article were overwhelmingly skeptical of the veracity of the article. One commenter wrote:
"A German minister, who heard from another German minister, that a German journalist, who was not there, reported that the U.S. president offered $1 billion for a company that has not yet developed a vaccine against COVID-19.... For my taste, much hearsay, the striving of Die Welt for many clicks, the fueling of resentment against Trump and perhaps intelligent marketing by the company for public funding in times of the corona crisis."
In an essay for the blog Die Achse des Guten, commentator Dirk Maxeiner, explained:
"If you want to distract from your own wrongdoing, it is always advisable to shout: 'Stop the thief, there he goes.' This game could be seen in clear form in recent days. German media and politicians, who in view of the Corona crisis would actually have enough reason to take a closer look at themselves, are taking down their favorite thief: Donald Trump, who else?
"Trump blocked entry for non-citizens from China to the United States over six weeks ago, while in Germany passengers continue to land cheerfully from there and enter unchecked. This does not prevent the Süddeutsche Zeitung, for example, from accusing Trump of 'failure' in the corona crisis. Headline: 'Virus meets incompetence.' Or, even better, Die Welt: 'Trump's attack on Germany hides America's fear of chaos.'
"You can of course see it the other way around: 'Germany's attack on Trump hides Germany's fear of chaos.' This version is much more plausible. The mixture of stupidity, arrogance and provincial self-overestimation can be described as an example in the following small episode.
"'The Insolent Attack on CureVac is a Wake-Up Call for Germany,' writes Die Welt. 'Donald Trump is poaching a German vaccine company,' it reported.... The German government is trying to prevent that....
"If you look at the updated information, you can only determine that it is a tempest in a teapot, in which the 'Stop the Thief' method met latent anti-Americanism, and the slogan 'Stop the Trump' spread like a wildfire. In the meantime, the narrative has become a fixed anecdote of German Trump and America haters....
"All of this shows how outrageous and provincial it is to want to construct a German-American economic confrontation out of American interest in the work of these researchers. It also demonstrates very clearly that German politicians are apparently only interested in cutting-edge research in this country when Americans discover it for themselves. Otherwise they do everything in association with the Brussels Nomenclature to make life difficult for top researchers in the medical field."
On March 16, the European Commission, the administrative arm of the European Union, announced that it had offered CureVac up to €80 million ($87 million) in financial support to scale up development and production of a vaccine against the coronavirus.
Merkel's chief of staff, Helge Braun, said that CureVac will remain in German hands:
"We have been in very close contact with the company in the past two weeks when there were thoughts of luring them to the United States. We also made it clear: If a vaccine is developed in Germany, it is for Germany and the world. That also convinced the company that they will stay."
Ultimately, the controversy may be superseded by events. On March 16, the United States became the first country to conduct a human test trial of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. In total, 45 healthy adult volunteers between the ages of 18 to 55 will receive the trial vaccine over approximately six weeks.
The vaccine is called mRNA-1273 and was developed by scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and collaborators at biotechnology company Moderna, based in Massachusetts. It may be another year to 18 months before it becomes available, once it has passed more trial phases to prove that it works and is safe.
Meanwhile, after weeks of equivocating, Chancellor Merkel finally acknowledged the threat posed by the coronavirus. In an address to the nation on March 18, she said:
"The situation is serious. Take it seriously. Since German unification, no, since the Second World War, there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action."
A few days earlier, Merkel had finally warned that more than two-thirds of the German population — 58 million people — could get infected with the coronavirus:
"The virus has arrived in Europe, it is here, and we must all understand that. As long as there is no immunity in the population, no vaccines and no therapy, then a high percentage of the population — experts say 60% to 70% — will become infected."