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 solve the 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 the development projects we refer to. 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, pharmaceutical, medical device and digital health 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.
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.
SARS-CoV-2 causes the infectious disease COVID-19. 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 or the WHO's Dashboard 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 AGES. Predictions and simulations are for example provided by TU Wien and its spin-off dwh. MedUni Vienna and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna also contribute scenarios, data, and models. New Corona Traffic Lights visualize infection data in Austria and around the globe. Here you can find a list with the measures that are currently in place in Austria and a risk assessment map.
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. Already back in April 2020, the Austrian Institute for Health Technology Assessment (AIHTA) referred to a total of 155 drugs and 79 vaccines being under development worldwide. The AIHTA Horizon Scanning Documents provide updated insights. Please also read the European Medicine Agency's overview. Several Austrian companies are participating in these efforts, including:
APEIRON Biologics: APN01 is a recombinant human protein (ACE2) with a unique dual mode of action that prevents the SARS-CoV-2 virus from infecting human cells by direct binding of viral particles. At the same time, APN01 can protect the lung, blood vessels or the heart from injury via its enzyme function.
Clinical phase II studies shall examine the effects of APN01 as a treatment for patients with COVID-19. Results are expected early 2021.
April 2, 2020: Initiation of a Phase II clinical trial
September 25, 2020: Publication of promising data in named patient use
Apeptico’s Solnatide is a synthetically produced peptide that was developed for treating critically ill ARDS patients. It reduces pulmonary oedemas and combats harmful reactive oxygen radicals. Solnatide has been approved for compassionate use treatment of severe COVID-19 patients with ARDS in various countries, and it is in advanced clinical development driven by Apeptico and the Medical University of Vienna. The Solnatide COVID-19 treatment project is the only project „made in Austria“ selected and supported by the European Commission during the EC special H2020 call „Advancing knowledge for the clinical and public health response to the 2019-nCoV epidemic (call ID: SC1-PHE-CORONAVIRUS-2020).
- The Austrian biotech incubator and accelerator CEBINA has 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.
September 17, 2020: CEBINA reports positive findings on the potency of azelastine as anti-COVID-19 approach
- 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.
- 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 - are preparing for a multi-center clinical phase II study.
June 24, 2020: FX06 shows promising results in named patient use
- 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 initiated the global FASTCURE (Fully Applied Structural Targeting of Coronavirus Using Repurposing Efforts) consortium. At FASTCURE the University of Graz is coordinating trials to find a cure for SARS-CoV-2. For this purpose, researchers are testing certain drugs which are already approved for the market, like HIV and malaria medications.
- Marinomed: Carragelose has been developed in Vienna. This substance is widely effective against respiratory viruses, shortening illnesses caused by previously known coronaviruses by more than three days. Since Carragelose is well tolerated, preventative use may also be advisable. In Austria, Carragelose-based products are manufactured by Sigmapharm. These products are available for sale in more than 40 countries under their distributors’ own labels.
July 16, 2020: Carragelose effective against SARS-CoV-2 in cell culture assays
November 20, 2020: Marinomed Biotech plans clinical trial with Carragelose nasal spray to investigate prevention of COVID-19 infection in frontline healthcare staff
- 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.
- Klosterneuburg-based Polymun Scientific is one of only a few companies worldwide with strong expertise in the liposomal formulation of drugs. Lipid nanoparticles can transport RNAs into cells which is a prerequisite of an immune response to RNA-vaccines. Currently, Polymun collaborates with several partners as regards SARS-CoV.2 vaccines, including Imperial College London, BioNTech/Pfizer, CureVac and Arcturus Therapeutics. Polymun will be one of several suppliers upon approval. For this, manufacturing processes have been upscaled.
- Takeda, together with CSL, we have established the global CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, including several world-leading plasma and other support companies, to accelerate the development of a plasma-based hyperimmune therapy for the treatment of people at risk for serious COVID-19 complications. The development is based on established immunoglobulin manufacturing platforms which are already known to result in safe product, and the virological expertise of the Takeda Global Pathogen Safety Team in Vienna. At the beginning of October 2020, the first patients were enrolled in an NIAID-sponsored phase 3 clinical trial to evaluate the potential medicine. Takeda has also joined forces with several global players to evaluate additional product candidates, in initiatives such as the COVID R&D Alliance and the IMI CARE project.
- Themis: The Viennese biotechnology company is developing a Covid-19 vaccine based on its existing measles vector technology. CEPI, the Coalition for Pandemic Preparedness Innovations, is funding a consortium between Themis, Institut Pasteur, and the University of Pittsburgh.
June 22, 2020: MSD completes the acquisition of Themis. This is expected to accelerate the development of Themis’ COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
- Valneva has announced a major vaccine partnership with the UK government for its inactivated COVID-19 vaccine, VLA2001. Under the agreement, if vaccine development is successful, Valneva will provide the UK government with 60 million doses in the second half of 2021. UK Government then has options over 40 million doses in 2022 and a further 30 million to 90 million doses, in aggregate, across 2023 to 2025. VLA2001 is based on a proven approach and will leverage Valneva’s existing manufacturing platform for its US FDA and EMA-approved Japanese encephalitis (JE) vaccine. VLA2001 is expected to enter clinical studies in December 2020.
- Viravaxx has launched a project to develop an integrated immunodiagnostic and vaccination platform for Covid-19 together with MedUni Vienna. At the core of this project is the identification of neutralizing antibody signatures as a basis for the design of vaccine candidates triggering a potent and focused immune response.
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.
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.
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. 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.
- 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. eCOVID19 provides advice to people showing symptoms of COVID-19 in the most uncomplicated manner, and then refers 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 molecular biological 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.
Not all infected individuals are aware of their status, especially if their case is asymptomatic. 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 approaches are under development. Please note that most of these tests are not intended for private use, and can only be carried out by appropriately qualified personnel in a laboratory. A list with test labs is available at the BMSGPK website. An additional overview is provided at www.covid19-labore.at. This portal is operated by the the Austrian Association of Laboratory Medicine and Clinical Chemistry (ÖGLMKC). In addition, standards for lab diagnostics have been developed.
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:
- 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 and participates in numerous national and international studies on the virus. In addition, a new test system will be developed.
- 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.
- In Upper Austria, GENSPEED Biotech has developed a series of three rapid tests based on the company’s µELISA platform. The COVID-19 IgG xPOC antibody test is already available on the market. The Ag xPOC antigen test will be available soon. In addition, a combined antibody/antigen test will be launched as a world first, which for the first time allows the simultaneous detection of an acute infection and antibodies.
- Ingenetix has developed several SARS-CoV-2 tests based on one-step reverse transcription real-time PCR. The product portfolio includes a SARS-CoV-2 Multiplex IVD Kit and a SARS Coronavirus & Influenza A/B IVD Kit to differentiate between SARS-CoV-2 and influenza virus infections. Ingenetix collaborates with a partner on a LAMP-based SARS-CoV-2 detection method that works without RNA extraction and is faster than PCR testing.
- Vienna’s RNA expert and Next-Generation Sequencing company Lexogen launched a sequencing-based ultra-high-throughput COVID-19 test that will allow for the first time a true mass screening of the whole population. Tens of thousands samples can be analyzed in one setup, and results are available in 24 hours.
- The Salzburg-based biotech company Procomcure has introduced the PhoenixDx COVID-19 real-time RT-PCR test to the marketplace. The company has obtained an FDA EUA approval for the test and also supplies an IVD-CE marked version of the test.
- 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).
- The Vienna-based company Technoclone has succeeded in developing a precise SARS-CoV-2 antibody test in close collaboration with the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, the Medical University of Vienna and the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. Two different ELISA test kits have been designed with one showing more sensitivity in the early stage of the immune response and the other only responding in the main and late phase. Both tests are manufactured in Austria and available worldwide.
- ViennaLab Diagnostics developed and recently launched the CE/IVD labeled SARS-CoV-2 RealFast Assay, which is already used by many national and international labs. Its advantages include high robustness (2 viral genes and a human control gene detected simultaneously), applicability on a broad range of PCR instruments and high sensitivity (10 virus copies detectable). Together with the Austrian Institute of Technology, protocols have been optimized for short PCR cycles and for the use on unpurified swab and gargling samples.
More than 200 highly qualified scientists based in various research institutions across Vienna have set up the Vienna COVID-19 Detection 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. The VCDI Standard Operating Procedures for routine monitoring of COVID-19 infections is available online. The technically robust, cost-effective, and scalable RT-qPCR testing pipeline is based on standard laboratory equipment.
Scientists from the Vienna BioCenter developed a new loop-mediated isothermal amplification-based SARS-CoV-2 detection method that is cheaper than PCR testing and achieves results with comparable sensitivity and specificity. An infection is recognizable even by laypersons via a simple color change in the sample.
In addition to molecular biologic approaches, 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. 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. A spin-off of the MedUni Vienna, 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 been specially optimized to accelerate the evaluation of SARS-CoV-2 scans for research purposes.
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 Austrian Vaccination Schedule.
In very severe SARS-CoV-2 infections, the lungs simply fill up with edema 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 expanded its production capacity in response to increased global demand.
In Austria, also new ventilators are being developed. The company AIT - Angewandte Informationstechnik Forschungsgesellschaft in Graz is creating 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.
Life-saving measures, medical treatments and hospital care come with great risk of infection for the clinical personnel involved. Therefore, large quantities of high-quality protective equipment and professional sanitizing are crucial.
Personal protective equipment for example includes mouth-nose-coverings, protective gear and protective gloves. Austria is home to a pioneer in the manufacturing of gloves, that is Semperit. For 100 years, Sempermed has manufactured top quality products – today for example in Wimpassing in Lower Austria or at international locations such as a manufacturing site in Kamunting, Malaysia. As there is a great demand, many companies have newly entered the personal protective equipment business. Hygiene Austria provides a good example. This a joint venture of Lenzing and Palmers Textil focusing on FFP2 masks and face masks for kids and adults.
In addition, additive manufacturing is used to produce personal protective equipment. HappyLab Vienna now clusters the capacities from more than 800 private 3D printers in a large distributed factory for the manufacturing of masks, face shields and other products. The Viennese start-up Cubicure for example strives to provide highly protective masks using 3D printing.
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.
Are you thinking of increasing or beginning the production of protective equipment? To encourage the manufacture of such materials, important European Standards for the production of personal protective equipment are freely available at Austrian Standards. 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 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.
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.
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. 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 special website provides insights on COVID-19 research projects at MedUni Vienna. Additional research locations on outstanding medical COVID-19 research in Austria include Graz, Innsbruck and Salzburg.
End of March 2020, 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 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. Additional information is available here: https://www.sarscov2-austria.org/
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 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 allows 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 project proposals to show, how the available expertise might help with solving the crisis.
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, 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 or your research institution also pursuing important approaches in response to COVID-19 or developing or 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 and support programs. Please follow these links to learn more about recently funded projects:
- EU: Coronavirus research and innovation
- FFG: Corona Emergency Call
- FWF: Urgent Funding
- Medical-Scientific Fund of the Mayor of Vienna
- Vienna Business Agency: Innovate4Vienna
- WWTF: COVID-19 Rapid Response
In addition, we invite you to have a look at the WHO website providing information on the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator.