Austria's life sciences sector is mobilizing against the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic – from clinics to research institutions and industry. However you look at it, we are confronted with an enormous challenge. In this article, we focus the spotlight on some of these players and thank them for their work. We must all work together to save lives. Please don't forget that blood and plasma donations are still urgently needed during times of crisis.
Below, we present a selection of Austrian research initiatives, products, services, and companies working to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic – please note that this list is by no means exhaustive. We also cannot make any definitive statements about the current availability of these offers, or about the prospects of these development projects. This article is intended to inform you about what is being developed and, in part, produced in Austria. We hope it will offer some insight into the landscape of the biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices industries, which have grown over the past decades with the support of the public sector. In addition to reading this page, please also have a look at the news items presented on our website. These efforts are part of the activities around the globe to stop the pandemic. Here you can find information on the broad spectrum of projects that are carried out in the European Union.
1. SARS-CoV-2: What is it?
What is known about the highly contagious virus called SARS-CoV-2? The new virus belongs to the coronavirus-family and is composed of an RNA genome, a capsid and a viral envelope. The Viennese communications specialists at Biolution have created an explanatory video about it. However, there are many open questions related to SARS-CoV-2. This is why many laboratories around the world are carrying out research on the molecular mechanisms surrounding this pathogen. Lexogen, Viennese specialists in developing and manufacturing RNA research reagents, are offering helpful reagents and analysis tools for this purpose.
SARS-CoV-2 causes the disease COVID-19, a respiratory illness. While the majority of cases results in mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, some progress to viral pneumonia and multi-organ failure. At the beginning of 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern and later on a pandemic. Web portals such as the COVID-19 Dashboard by the CSSE at Johns Hopkins University visualize and track reported cases worldwide in real-time, and the European mortality monitoring at EuroMOMO is also very revealing.
Figures focusing on the pandemic in Austria are available at the Dashboard operated by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection. Predictions and simulations are for example provided by TU Wien and its spin-off dwh. The simulation model they use is based on the GEPOC (Generic Population Concept) simulation model. MedUni Vienna and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna also contribute scenarios, data, and models for evidence-based governance to cope with the crises.
2. Drugs and vaccines in the development pipeline
A growing number of vaccines and potential therapeutically active substances are being developed around the world and medicines currently on the market are being tested for effectiveness against COVID-19. The Austrian Institute for Health Technology Assessment (AIHTA) recently has referred to a total of 155 drugs and 79 vaccines being under development worldwide. Let’s hope that some of them will prove effectiveness. Austrian companies and research institutions are participating in these efforts, including:
- Apeiron Biologics: APN01 is a recombinant human protein which should prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from infecting human cells. At the same time, this drug candidate also has an anti-inflammatory effect and attenuates pulmonary edemas. Both of these effects are desirable for treating the acute respiratory failure caused by COVID-19. Clinical studies shall examine the effects of APN01 in critically ill patients. The Viennese company Attoquant Diagnostics is implementing accompanying laboratory tests, as was recently reported on vienna.at. VelaLabs is involved in the analysis of patient samples.
April 2, 2020: Regulatory approvals in Austria, Germany and Denmark to initiate a Phase II clinical trial of APN01 to treat 200 COVID-19 patients)
- Apeptico: Solnatide is a synthetically produced peptide that was developed for treating acute respiratory failure. Administering this molecule reduces pulmonary edemas and combats harmful reactive oxygen radicals. This substance is administered as an aerosol through ventilation for critically ill ARDS patients. Read more about this in an article in addendum magazine.
April 7, 2020: Apeptio today announced that its solnatide has been approved for Compassionate Use by the Austrian Federal Office for Safety in Health Care (BASG) for the treatment of patients infected by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and subsequently developing severe pulmonary dysfunction (severe COVID-19).
April 28, 2020: Solnatide has been approved for the treatment of COVID-19 patients suffering from pulmonary oedema and acute respiratory distress syndrome by the Italian Medicines Agency and the Ethics Committee of the National Institute for Infectious Diseases
April 30, 2020:MedUni Vienna starts a clinical trial on solnatide.
- The Austrian biotech incubator and accelerator CEBINA has recently announced to join the global efforts to fight COVID-19. Several initiatives have started, including projects on drug repurposing, new anti-viral compounds to be used as food supplements and unique vaccine approaches.
- Cyprumed, based in the Tyrol, develops an antiviral nose and throat spray based on an innovative formulation of auxiliary substances with antiviral activity that are already used in approved medical devices. In this way, the virus in the throat should be reduced or even inactivated. This might prevent serious illnesses and/or reduce the danger of infection.
- G.ST Antivirals and Takeda have started a research collaboration on antiviral drugs against COVID-19. G.ST Antivirals is a spin-off from the MedUni Vienna and dedicated to the development of antiviral substances that lead to an intracellular starvation of the virus. The first product of G.ST Antiviral’s pipeline is 2-deoxyglucose (2-DG) against respiratory viruses, clinical trials are about to start.
- Innophore: The Graz-based bioinformatics company launched the global FASTCURE (Fully Applied Structural Targeting of Coronavirus Using Repurposing Efforts) consortium. As reported in Trending Topics, the University of Graz is coordinating trials to find a cure for SARS-CoV-2. As part of this project, researchers are testing certain drugs which are already approved for the market, like HIV and malaria medications. FASTCURE's findings will be made available to the public as quickly as possible and the researchers do not intend to patent their results.
- MChE / F4 Pharma: FX06 is a drug candidate that is supposed to preserve the integrity of the endothelium and to prevent the leakage of fluid from the blood vessel into the surrounding tissue. In addition, FX06 also has anti-inflammatory properties. Therefore, it has the potential to become a novel therapeutic for the treatment of severely ill COVID-19 patients: SIRS and F4-Pharma - joint owners of all rights to FX06 - have initiated final steps of GMP production and are preparing for a multi-center clinical study in Vienna, Frankfurt and Würzburg. Further clinical centers might be included in the trials.
- Panoptes: The Viennese biotech company is developing the molecule PP-001, which exhibits anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects. This mechanism of action is particularly promising against COVID-19, because it can be used to treat not just the virus, but also the overwhelming immunological response (cytokine storm). Until now, this substance was tested for severe, inflammatory eye diseases, including in phase 2 of clinical trials. Clinical trials of its effectiveness against COVID-19 could start in a few months, as the company recently reported in a press release.
- Takeda: TAK-888, a plasma-based antibody therapy for treating infected patients with a high risk of COVID-19, is also being developed in Austria. This development is based on an immunoglobulin platform that has been approved for 15 years and is therefore proven to be safe, as well as on the virological expertise of the Takeda Global Pathogen Safety Team in Vienna. These researchers are also working in consultation with Austrian and international authorities. At the same time, studies are being carried out on whether Takeda products and pipeline products that are already on the market can be used to effectively treat infected patients.
- Themis: The Viennese biotechnology company is developing a Covid-19 vaccine based on its existing measles vector technology. A phase 1 study will begin soon. CEPI, the Coalition for Pandemic Preparedness Innovations, is funding a consortium between Themis, Institut Pasteur, and the University of Pittsburgh.
- Valneva and Dynavax have announced their collaboration to initiate a vaccine program for COVID-19. VLA2001 is an inactivated vaccine candidate that inclcudes CpG 1018 as adjuvant to induce a strong immune response.
- Viravaxx has launched a project to develop an integrated immunodiagnostic and vaccination platform for Covid-19 together with MedUni Vienna. A proteomic microarray will be constructed, which allows high resolution epitope mapping of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection; virus neutralization will be analyzed by an ELISA assay. Sera from convalescent patients will be analyzed in a clinical study with up to 600 participants, which already has provisional ethics approval. Neutralizing antibody signatures will be identified using machine learning algorithms and used to create a vaccine based on the company’s PCFiT platform, which is expected to elicit a potent and focused immune response against SARS-CoV-2.
Please also have a look at the overview on projects that are part of the Pharmig-member-companies’ pipelines, that is the Association of the Austrian Pharmaceutical Industry. Furthermore, a map showing the pipeline projects in the German-speaking region has been created. In addition, watch this new video created by Biolution reviewing potential therapeutic interventions which could mitigate the life-threatening symptoms of COVID-19 patients.
General information on drug development, on the function of vaccines and on treatment models for COVID-19 are summarized in the factsheets published by FOPI in the middle of May. This is the Forum of the Research-Based Pharmaceutical Industry (FOPI), Austria.
Products based on Carragelose, a substance developed by the Viennese company Marinomed, may also ultimately prove helpful. This drug is available in Austria as nasal sprays, throat sprays or lonzenges. It is widely effective against respiratory viruses, shortening illnesses caused by previously known coronaviruses by more than three days. Since the drug is well tolerated, preventative use may also be advisable. Research on this drug's use against SARS-CoV-2 is about to start. Marinomed's Carragelose-based products are available for sale in more than 40 countries under their distributors’ own labels. In Austria, it is produced by Sigmapharm in Vienna. The new Hornstein factory will shortly open, so that domestic production will soon satisfy local and international demand.
Around the world, researchers continue to investigate whether existing anti-viral drugs can be used to treat COVID-19, and if so, at what dosages. Under the leadership of the MedUni Vienna, an international working group in the fields of infectiology, clinical pharmacology, and pharmaceuticals from the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ESCMID) has brought together all available information about anti-viral drugs and dosages, as well as observations about monotherapy and combination treatments for SARS-CoV-2. The Review aims to reach an international consensus on off-label medication. Discussions are focused on the key issues of dosages and interactions between different anti-viral medications, or between anti-viral medication and concomitant medication, in critically ill COVID-19 patients.
3. Digital Health solutions for COVID-19
COVD-19 speeds up the development and use of digital health solutions around the globe. These examples from Austria only show a few of the many application areas related with the pandemic:
- BioneXt LAB and Medicus AI launched CoVive, a free CE-certified COVID-19 personalized support and self-monitoring app. Developed as a global initiative, the app is available on iOS and is coming soon to Android. By empowering users with more clarity and information about their health, with features for self-assessment, test interpretation, and self-monitoring, the app acts as a reassuring companion and source of reliable information and proposed next steps for users. In its initial phase, CoVive is available in English, French, German, Portuguese, Greek, and Arabic. Additional languages shall follow later.
- The healthtech startup Scarletred has developed eCOVID19, a coronavirus App to relieve the burden on hotlines. In order to manage the huge demand by people affected by the coronavirus, digitals tools have become part of the solution for an increasing number of public authorities and governments. The young company has launched its own telemedicine App to provide advice to people showing symptoms of COVID-19 in the most uncomplicated manner, and then refer them to the competent authority. New features and services are being developed for the platform. This includes the integration of wet lab diagnostics results that provide evidence on a person’s COVID-19 health status.
- Symptoma provides an AI-based chatbot for the fast and reliable assessment of an individual’s COVID-19 risk, while also considering over 20,000 other diseases. This tool is now officially listed by the European Commission as a solution for the digital screening of citizens.
4. Tests, tests, tests
Controlling the spread of the virus requires special diagnostic tests to confirm viral infections. You can view Austria's current testing criteria here. If you think you may be infected, please call the telephone hotlines that have been set up for this purpose. We'd like to take this opportunity to emphatically remind you to take contact reduction, physical distancing and hygiene very seriously in order to minimize the spread of the virus.
Due to limited testing capacities, not all infected individuals are aware of their status, especially if their case is asymptomatic. Comprehensive molecular diagnostics will also be helpful to determine when the current protective measures can be reduced and come to an end. From a tech standpoint, there are a few different approaches around the world used to test for SARS-CoV-2 infections or antibodies resulting from these infections, and new analyses approaches are under development. Please note that these tests are not intended for private use, and can only be carried out by appropriately qualified personnel in a laboratory.
In addition to large, international diagnostics giants, small and medium-sized operations in Austria are also developing helpful testing systems for use in research laboratories or in routine diagnostics. Here are a few examples:
- A Viennese company whose name must be withheld for security reasons hase developed a molecular biological test. A large number of kits are being produced per week – a huge contribution to the ability to supply much-needed tests in Austria and Europe.
- The Salzburg-based biotech company Procomcure has introduced the PhoenixDx COVID-19 real-time RT-PCR test to the marketplace. Production is in full swing in order to satisfy global demand. Die Presse reported on this rapid test from Austria in early March. By now, the company has obtained an FDA EUA approval for the test. In addition, an externally validated, highly robust, IVD-CE marked version of the test is available: PhoenixDx SARS-CoV-2 IVD CE.
- Attoquant Diagnostics specializes in the analysis of the Renin-Angiotensin system, a hormonal system that controls blood pressure. ACE2, the entry receptor for SARS-CoV-2, is part of this hormonal system. Attoquant is contributing special analyses that are required for the development of new substances to combat SARS-CoV-2, as well as participating in numerous national and international studies on the virus.
- Enzyme specialists from EUCODIS Bioscience and diagnostics experts from Biosynth-Carbosynth have teamed up to develop a novel diagnostic tool for the fast and reliable detection of an acute SARS-CoV-2 infection. Based on viral enzymatic activities and a novel enzymatic bioluminescence substrate, the diagnostic test should identify active as well as asymptomatic early infections within minutes.
- The University of Innsbruck and its spin-off Sinsoma engage in the development and evaluation of a novel high-throughput technology for detecting SARS-CoV-2 in patient samples. This approach uses the coupling of highly sensitive endpoint PCR and capillary electrophoresis (CE).
Other companies are also working with large enterprises to make their tests available in Austria. A subsidiary of Curetis, Ares Genetics at the Vienna BioCenter has built on many years of strategic partnership with the Chinese BGI group to bring their PCR-based coronavirus test to Europe. The test, which was developed by the BGI group and widely implemented in China, has recently received the CE IVD marking and is approved by the US FDA. It is now available through the Curetis distribution network. Please also read the recent White Paper by Ares Genetics on the role of bacterial co-infections in COVID-19.
A new website installed by the Austrian Association of Laboratory Medicine and Clinical Chemistry (ÖGLMKC) lists Austrian labs active in COVID-19 testing. Information on their location and the applied test types is available. In addition, standards for lab diagnostics have been developed. Please also have a look at the list created by the Federal Ministry, summarizing labs carrying out tests in Austria or that have started to prepare for such tests.
More than 200 highly qualified scientists based in various research institutions across Vienna have set up the Vienna COVID-19 Diagnostics Initiative (VCDI) to increase the national testing capacity for COVID-19. Coordinated by the Max Perutz Labs, an automated pipeline for detecting viral RNA is being established at the Vienna BioCenter, repurposing existing laboratory infrastructure and reagents. An overview on the organizations joining forces at VCDI is available here.
The University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU) and Vetmeduni Vienna have started a new project to find out more about asymptomatic cases that are supposed to account for 30-40 percent of all cases. This group doesn’t show the typical symptoms of COVID-19, but in the end generates an immune response that is expected to protect against reinfection. For this purpose, the test protocol of the first non-commercial antibody test will be applied, which has been developed by an Austrian researcher in New York. Researchers form MedUni Vienna and the University of Salzburg collaborate in this remarkable initiative. The BOKU spin-off enGenes supports the project in establishing serological tests with its know-how. Through the application of the enGenes X-press technology top-quality recombinant virus proteins and plasmid DNA as required for the tests will be manufactured in a highly efficient process in sufficient quantities.
In addition to molecular diagnostics, medical imaging solutions are important as regards dealing with COVID-19. Imaging techniques allow radiologists to examine the effects of the infection and of therapeutic measures in the lungs. A spin-off of the MedUni Vienna and supported by TU Wien, contextflow is attempting to increase the usefulness of these medical images by using specialized image and text searches to quickly find comparable cases. The software has now been specially optimized to accelerate the evaluation of SARS-CoV-2 scans for research purposes. Besides, the company 123sonography is supporting health care professionals around the globe with free educational videos and webinars to diagnose and treat COVID-19 patients, including lung ultrasound.
5. Personal protective equipment, 3D printing and disinfection
In our current situation, one of the most important things you can do in your daily life is trying to stay healthy. Not only do we all benefit from proper nutrition, enough sleep, regular exercise, physical distancing, hygiene and avoiding accidents, these precautions also reduce the burden on the health care system. In this regard, we also suggest comparing your vaccination status with the 2020 Austrian Vaccination Schedule, and pay special attention to the Health Ministry's recommendations.
On March 22, 2020, the first Austrian guidelines for treating SARS-CoV were published, which describe how treatments should be carried out according to current knowledge and using available medicine and medical devices. In very severe SARS-CoV-2 infections, the lungs simply fill up with oedema fluid composed of blood fluid and particles and the patient risks suffocation. Delivering crucial oxygen to the body in these cases requires technical support. The Alveolar Liquid Clearance mechanism needs to be activated during the mechanical ventilation of the patient. This is where special medical devices come in, like the TwinStream or TwinStreamICU produced by the long-established Viennese company, Carl Reiner, which has now expanded its production capacity in response to increased global demand.
The company AIT - Angewandte Informationstechnik Forschungsgesellschaft in Graz is developing a low-cost ventilator together with the Centre for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering of the Medical University of Vienna. The system is operated with a 3D-printed, space-saving rotary pump. A flexible software enables by means of a multitude of sensors all ventilation modes that can otherwise only be provided by high end devices.
These life-saving measures, however, come with great risk of infection for the clinical personnel involved – which means large quantities of high-quality protective equipment are important. In positive news, Semperit declared that it will soon be able to supply Austria with more than 60 million examination and protective gloves, which are currently being manufactured in Sempermed's production site in Kamunting, Malaysia. Production is also ongoing in Wimpassing, in Lower Austria. In addition, a number of organizations are donating supplies to medical personnel. By now, personal protective equipment is being developed and manufactured by various actors across Austria as discussed by ORF in a recent article. The Viennese start-up Cubicure for example strives to provide highly protective masks using 3D printing. Additive manufacturing can also be used to produce large quantities of face shields, as e.g. TU Graz is demonstrating. HappyLab Vienna now clusters the capacities from more than 800 private 3D printers in a large distributed factory for the manufacturing of face shields. Furthermore, Hygiene Austria is new to the personal protective equipment business. This a joint venture of Lenzing and Palmers Textil focusing on face masks. Because of the increased demand, the Austrian company adds FFP2 masks to its product portfolio.
Human.technology Styria has directed the setup of a new web platform to facilitate the purchase of protective equipment in Austria. Searching https://www.schutz-vor-corona.at, companies will find the products required to comply with the protection and hygiene guidelines announced by the Austrian Federal Government.
Are you thinking of increasing or beginning production of urgently needed protective equipment? To encourage the manufacture of such materials, important European Standards for the production of personal protective equipment have been made freely available recently. We also recommend that you contact the business development agencies about opportunities for financial support in Austria. In addition, you might be interested in the OFI’s new quick check service for face masks: The permeability and reusability of various mask types and materials can be compared with the data of certified masks. Placing simple mouth-nose-masks on the Austrian market during the pandemic does not require a certificate for the masks as long as certain prerequisites are met.
Cleanliness and hygiene play an important role in preventing infection everywhere. A product recommendation for public institutions and health care establishments: Braincon develops decontamination devices in Vienna that can be used to decontaminate spaces and surfaces using hydrogen peroxide, which deactivates bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores. This solution is currently in high demand around the world. A new service is available for the fast and reliable decontamination of personal protective equipment (PPE) to allow reuse. The Vienna based company DISINFECT+ has demonstrated the effectiveness of the approach in a large-scale trial together with the Steiermärkische Krankenanstaltengesellschaft KAGES.
6. New academic research initiatives in Austria
The life sciences rank among Austria’s most important research areas and Vienna is the country’s leading city in this field. As there are clear regional strengths in research on infectious diseases and immunology and funding bodies quickly issued calls for projects on SARS-CoV-2 and the pandemic, new research projects have been launched quickly. Additional ones are being prepared.
We are happy to witness the start of all the research endeavors funded though the Vienna Science and Technology Fund’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Call. Please also have a look at the projects supported by the Mayor of the City of Vienna's Medical and Scientific Fund. Numerous research disciplines bring in their knowledge and try to contribute to a better understanding of the current situation and to develop solutions. In addition to biological and medical questions, current challenges in education and economy are addressed for example.
The Vienna General Hospital (AKH) campus is home to Austria's most advanced medical research and care. World-renowned doctors at MedUni Vienna lead research here, in addition to working in the clinics. All specializations, including virology, pulmonology, and epidemiology, are present at the hospital, with particular emphasis on immunology, oncology, neuroscience, cardiovascular medicine, medical imaging, and transplants. An in-house coordination center for clinical studies (KKS) handles the planning, implementation, and evaluation of clinical research projects about COVID-19 and other diseases. Currently, more than 100 research projects on COVID-19 are ongoing. These range from drug and vaccine development, clinical trials, analyses of the courses of disease and immunity, and the development of new diagnostic approaches to epidemiological studies, data analyses, and simulations. A new website provides insights on COVID-19 research projects at MedUni Vienna. Additional research locations on medical COVID-19 research in Austria include Graz, Innsbruck and Salzburg.
Recently, CeMM – Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and MedUni Vienna have started investigating SARS-CoV-2 genome evolution in Austria. The project aims at sequencing 1,000 viral genomes obtained from Austrian patient-derived samples, in order to increase the molecular understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and the causative pathogen. The project results will integrate Austrian viral genome data into a global map of SARS-CoV-2 mutations, which will help decipher the mutational dynamics underlying the COVID-19 pandemic. The first 21 SARS-CoV-2 genomes in Austria have now been completed and published. The network is open to additional collaborations and especially welcomes contributions from clinical virologists and diagnostics laboratories across Austria.
BBMRI.at (Biobanking and BioMolecular resources Research Infrastructure Austria) unites the Austrian biobanking expertise and is the national node of the respective European research infrastructure. Its partners in Graz, Innsbruck and Vienna provide access to samples from healthy people and patients with COVID-19, support for SARS-CoV-2 research, services at Austria’s most advanced biosecurity labs (BSL-3) and much more. Details and some guidelines for handling SARS-CoV-2 samples are available here. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of research infrastructures has set up specific services, such as rapid or fast track access, to speed up research. This is a great resource to develop the solutions needed right now. Click here for an overview. The new European COVID-19 Data Platform enables the rapid collection and sharing of research data from different sources for the European and global research communities.
The Austrian Research Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib) is linking science and industry and connects about 200 partners in industrial biotechnology. This central hub and information broker allow to quickly access the broad expertise and methodological know-how in this area across Austria. As regards COVID-19, for example the production of recombinant proteins and efficient biotechnological manufacturing process are of interest. Because of the pandemic, acib-partners have phrased a set of new project proposals to show, how the available expertise might help with solving the crisis.
Due to the cancellation of scientific conferences, trade fairs and partnering meetings around the globe for preventive reasons, the analysis of documents gains in importance. A large number of research papers, patents and information on clinical trials is available in the respective databases. By this, globally produced knowledge can contribute to solving the global emergency. Because of the pandemic, new ties have been established within the life sciences community and beyond to speed up the exchange of knowledge and to develop innovative solutions. Such processes often require encouragement and support by actors such as cluster organizations, incubators, technology transfer offices, funding agencies and professional consultants for example. It pays off to screen technology offers such as those presented by WTZ Ost, WTZ Süd or the Invention Store occasionally.
Despite all the focus on curbing this pandemic, other diseases haven't disappeared in the meantime. That's why we want to extend our gratitude to the manufacturers of all life-saving medicines and medical products. The teams at companies like Boehringer Ingelheim, the Novartis Group, MED-EL, Octapharma, Ottobock, Pfizer, and many others are doing amazing work in Austria and abroad to ensure supply. Apart from thanking the life sciences community, we want to thank the front-line health care workers risking their own health to save lives, especially nurses and doctors, and all the other people involved in the process of solving the crisis tied to COVID-19.
Is your Austria-based life sciences company and/or your research institution also pursuing important approaches in response to COVID-19 or developing/producing products here? Contact us at news(at)LISAvienna.at so we can discuss how to include your efforts in this post. We look forward to hearing from you! We've also published a separate page with information about support measures for companies of all sizes, NGOs, and more, as well as relevant funding programs.