Tesla has partnered with Curevac to help fight the coronavirus, but what is the extent of this partnership? I’ve seen claims all over Twitter from a few of Elon Musk’s critics saying that he should “stick to making rockets.” Honestly, telling someone with Elon’s net worth to not help is kind of rude, if you ask me. Opinions and thoughts about that matter aside, NZZ gives a detailed breakdown of Tesla’s partnership with Curevac, and no, Elon is not in some lab with a syringe filled with God only knows what while standing over a poor hapless soul strapped down to a gurney (visions that may come to mind if you look at some of the tweets out there).
This partnership is actually older than the coronavirus itself, and shows that many armchair critics and click chasers haven’t really done their research. The first takeaway from the German article is that Curevac and Tesla are working together on an “RNA printer.” Tesla is helping by building the parts of an RNA printer that will produce not only this vaccine, but also others and other medicines. That said, we should all recognize that this is no normal printer. “Anyone who imagines an ‘RNA printer’ as a handy printer that will shortly spit out vaccines against Sars-CoV-2, for example, is not entirely correct,” the author of the article noted before explaining the story of this partnership.
Starting With Oncology
Curevac, founded in 2000, was the first biotech company to work with the messenger molecule mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) for the fields of oncology, protein therapy, and vaccines. It came to the conclusion years ago that it needed an industrial plan in order to conduct clinical studies at all and then produce billions of doses annually, according to its CEO, Franz-Werner Haas. After that, the company wanted to eventually produce smaller quantities at a faster pace — something geared toward personalized medicine. For example, it’s a matter of producing a personalized active ingredient for an oncology patient. This would take too much time on a large system, and the quantities would also be too large. Curevac needed additional support to implement its idea of mobile production units, stating, “We are biologists, we are doctors, we are technicians, but we are not mechanical engineers.” With this in mind, the company brought in Grohmann Engineering as a technical partner, which Tesla bought and is now Tesla Grohmann Automation.
An RNA printer, the article points out, is a small mobile production facility (not a printer you plug in, press a button, and print from) that is made for a certain type of pharmaceutical. It uses a specific RNA sequence as an active ingredient. This field of application is not limited to vaccines — it is also being tested for antibody therapies for various diseases. These diseases range from personalized cancer medicine to gene therapy using the Crispr/Cas technique.
A Curevac spokesman described the RNA printer, which is still a prototype, as a mini-factory that is 3–4 meters long, 2 meters wide, and 2 meters high. It’s slightly larger than an SUV and can be shipped in a container. Additionally, work is being done to make it smaller and give it more functions.
The article noted that the focus for right now will most likely be on vaccines, and that extensive immunization against certain pathogens is pretty much a logistical problem. When a vaccine is distributed, it requires a functioning cold chain from the manufacturer to the most remote village. Also, RNA is often an unstable molecule that decomposes quickly — even at room temperature. Often when transporting it, the temperature has to be at least -20 to sometimes -80 degrees Celsius.
Curevac is actually working on an idea of making any mRNA vaccine directly where it is needed. This, the author pointed out, is what the RNA printer could do. The printer consists of a bioreactor in which the DNA template is overwritten in RNA. Next, the finished messenger molecules are freed from the process chemicals and then embedded in fat droplets, which prevent them from decomposing too quickly.
Grohmann Engineering GmbH, which is an engineering automation company, was acquired by Tesla in 2016. It was officially taken over by Tesla on January 3, 2017. Back then, the partnership was uncertain, and Curevac actually sent representatives to California to encourage Tesla to continue the collaboration. Tesla, as we all see clearly, did so, in addition to Tesla Grohmann’s is focused on automation processes for the production of EVs and power storage systems.
— Shill LeBeau (@Lebeaucarnew) July 4, 2020
With this bit of history in mind, it’s easy to see how it was natural for Elon Musk and Tesla to get involved with creating a vaccine for the coronavirus. Many don’t take the time to fully research this partnership and are quick to loathe Elon Musk for being Elon Musk — someone who wants to help. Whether calling it a publicity stunt, stock manipulation, or whatever the critics say these days, it’s clear that those who seek to criticize are not doing their research.
If one was doing actual research, they would have not only realized that Tesla is working with Curevac to make molecule printers, but that the company has been working with Curevac behind the scenes since Tesla acquired Grohmann Engineering GmbH 4 years ago. And the research would have you understand that Tesla’s engineers are working in partnership with Curevac in a meaningful way. Just note that they are making the mechanical parts of the printer, not the actual vaccine itself.
Speaking of the vaccine, in a video call with members of the press, Haas explained that “Curevac had good feedback on its Phase 1 trials and is moving into Phases 2 and 3. Curevac is also recruiting 36,000 participants. A virus doesn’t differentiate between nationality, sex, skin color, religion — it is an international problem, that must be tackled internationally.” He added that, “I will say it in the words of Bill Gates — he said it four years ago — such outbreaks will happen again and again. The thing is we don’t know what they will be and when they will come.”
I think I learned more about RNA and mRNA writing this article than I did in school. And what I’ve gathered from this is that the folks at Curevac — the actual scientists making the vaccine — know what they are doing and know what they need from Tesla. Tesla is helping and meeting that need, and has years of experience working with Curevac.
Tesla helping the vaccine would be the equivalent of me giving some copper wire to a friend who works in electrical engineering. I know nothing about the engineering work they do, but I use copper in my art and can get them some.
We don’t know the type of benefit Tesla is receiving from Curevac, but we do know that Tesla’s contribution is something that will help save lives and create a valuable asset to the medical field. Actually, Elon Musk has stated before that Tesla isn’t going to financially benefit from this. Emotionally, Tesla’s staff may benefit, especially if Curevac’s prototype that Tesla is helping to create becomes a world-changing success in the medical industry — what they are hoping it to be. And this, in my opinion, is why I believe Elon and Tesla are working with Curevac — to help.
“I’m interested in things that change the world or that affect the future and wondrous, new technology where you see it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, how did that even happen? How is that possible?’” — Elon Musk