COVID-19: Research, products and services in Austria

Vienna, March 30, 2020

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 and the outcome is unclear. In this article, we focus the spotlight on some of these players and thank them for their work. Please show your respect for the people behind these achievements by following the measures adopted by the Austrian government to the best of your ability. We must all work together to save lives. And don't forget that blood and plasma donations are still urgently needed during times of crisis.

Made in Austria

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 decade with the support of the public sector.

SARS-CoV-2: What is it?

First of all, it's important to understand what current molecular biology research can tell us about this highly contagious virus. The Viennese communications specialists at Biolution have created an explanatory video about it. To see model calculations of the spread of the epidemic, read the reports of the Viennese company dwh. The simulation model they use is based on the GEPOC (Generic Population Concept) simulation model, which was developed in collaboration with the TU Wien. Meanwhile, Complexity Science Hub Vienna is also working to produce socially relevant information about containing the crisis, and to provide scenarios, data, and models to underpin evidence-based governance.

Many laboratories around the world are carrying out research on SARS-CoV-2 to increase our understanding of the molecular mechanisms surrounding this pathogen. Lexogen, Viennese specialists in developing and manufacturing RNA research reagents, have offered helpful reagent and analysis tools for this purpose.

Imaging techniques allow radiologists to examine the effects of the infection and of therapeutic measures in the lungs, which is also relevant to SARS-CoV-2. 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.

Special software is also used for other purposes in modern medicine. For example, it can facilitate the evaluation of images taken during tissue examinations in the laboratory. In order to support virological research worldwide, TissueGnostics in Vienna is currently offering up to €5 million in free licenses for its software.

NEW: CeMM – Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and MedUni Vienna have started investigating SARS-CoV-2 genome evolution in patients in Austria by deep sequencing and sophisticated computational analyses. This is expected to offer invaluable insights into molecular dynamics and transmission chains. The network is open to additional collaborations and especially welcomes contributions from clinical virologists and diagnostics laboratories across Austria.

"Prevention is better than cure"

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, and avoiding accidents, these precautions also reduce the burden on the health care system. Most importantly, make sure to keep a large enough distance between yourself and others, and wash your hands thoroughly with soap – the MedUni Vienna posted a video demonstrating the correct method.

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.

We also suggest comparing your vaccination status with the 2020 Austrian Vaccination Schedule, and pay special attention to the Health Ministry's recommendations.

Molecular diagnostics is key

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 the mandated social distancing measures 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 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. 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. Please note that these tests are not intended for private use, and can only be carried out by appropriately qualified personnel in a laboratory. 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 2019-nCoV, is part of this hormonal system. Attoquant is contributing special analyses that are required for the development of new substances to combat 2019-nCoV, as well as participating in numerous national and international studies on 2019-nCoV research.
     
  • Procomcure Biotech in Salzburg: PHOENIXDX® 2019-NCOV is a real-time, RT-PCR-based detection system for 2019-nCoV. Die Presse reported on this rapid test from Austria in early March.
     
  • A Viennese company whose name must be withheld for security reasons is also currently developing a molecular biological test. In the meantime, 50,000 tests are being produced per week – a huge contribution to the ability to supply much-needed diagnostic kits in Austria and Europe.

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 (2019-nCoV) 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 (Food and Drug Administration). 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.

The Stockerau-based company BioProducts Langmann is another example of organizations focusing on distribution. Their product range includes the world's first Real Time PCR kit with a CE marking, as well as fully automated POCT systems that specifically detect the COVID 2019 strain. In addition, the company offers automated and manual RNA isolation systems for coronaviruses, therefore delivering a one-stop, complete analysis solution for diagnosing COVID 19. 

ARCHIMEDlife is one of 13 nationally accredited medical laboratories in Austria, and is ready to contribute if called upon: companies that develop tests can benefit from their expertise in verifying and producing special diagnostics, and the laboratory can also contribute by carrying out tests itself.

NEW: 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 account for 30-40 percent of all cases. This group doesn’t show the typical symptoms of COVID-19, but in the end generates a protective immune response. 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. In addition, some institutions also provide equipment and expertise to support PCR-based testing.

Emergency response

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.

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.

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 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. Austrian companies and research institutions are participating in these efforts, including:

  • MedUni Vienna: The Vienna General Hospital campus is home to Austria's most advanced medical research and care. World-renowned doctors 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.
     
  • 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 are currently underway in both Europe and China to 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.
    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)
     
  • ApepticoSolnatide 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. In collaboration with the MedUni Vienna, a clinical study on COVID-19 is being prepared at the Vienna General Hospital. Read more about this in an article in addendum magazine.
     
  • 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.
     
  • 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.
     
  • 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.
     
  • 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.

New uses for familiar products?

Products based on Carragelose, a substance developed by the Viennese company Marinomed, may also ultimately prove helpful. This drug is available in Austria as a nasal spray or in pill form; 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. There is no information yet about tests of this drug's use against SARS-CoV-2. 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.

Thank you!

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@LISAvienna.at so we can discuss how to include your efforts in this post. We look forward to hearing from you! Your LISAvienna Team.