A Berlin Biotech Company Got a Head Start on Coronavirus Tests
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Shortly after New Year’s, Olfert Landt started seeing news reports of a strange disease spreading in China. The German scientist, who’s developed tests for ailments ranging from swine flu to SARS, sensed an opportunity—and a new mission. He spent the next few days quizzing virologists at Berlin’s Charité hospital and scouring the internet for more information on what soon became known as the novel coronavirus, and by Jan. 10 he’d introduced a viable test kit. His phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. “Everyone here is putting in 12- to 14-hour shifts,” the ponytailed Landt says as he rushes through the corridors of TIB Molbiol Syntheselabor GmbH, the Berlin biotech company he started three decades ago. “We’re nearing our limit.”
In the past two months, Landt and his staff at the company’s production facility—a former industrial building just south of the disused Tempelhof airport—have produced 40,000 coronavirus diagnostic kits, enough for about 4 million individual tests. TIB has reoriented its business toward coronavirus, running its machines through the night and on weekends to make the kits, which sell for about €160 ($180) apiece. As orders have poured in from the World Health Organization, national health authorities, and laboratories in some 60 countries, TIB’s revenue in February tripled from the same month in 2019.
TIB, which last year generated €18 million in sales, is one of about a score of test-kit producers worldwide. Companies such as LGC Biosearch Technologies in Britain, Spain’s CerTest Biotec, and Seoul-based Seegene Inc. are seeing an explosion in demand as authorities seek to slow the virus’s spread. South Korea has tested more than 210,000 people and Italy more than 60,000. Efforts in the U.S. got off to a rocky start when a diagnostic tool from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proved to be flawed. The U.S. has since changed the test and taken steps to expand availability, but the CDC has warned kits won’t be ready in the numbers promised by the Trump administration.
● How do virus tests work?
Over the years, TIB has made tests aimed at diagnosing more than 100 ailments. For the coronavirus, Landt teamed up with Roche Holding AG to distribute the kit, which works with the Swiss drugmaker’s diagnostic machines. The tests use what’s called the polymerase chain reaction, a diagnostic method recommended by the WHO that amplifies the virus’s genetic code so it can be detected before the onset of symptoms. The kit comes with two vials: a primer to help detect an infection, and a synthetically engineered piece of the virus, which labs use to produce a surefire positive match to ensure their machines are working correctly. A lab technician combines these ingredients with a patient’s mucus sample—usually from a throat or nasal swab—and results are usually available in a few hours.
The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s equivalent to the CDC, is urging scientists to come up with a simple tool that patients can administer themselves and get almost immediate results—something like home pregnancy tests. An interim step could be revised procedures such as asking patients to take their own samples for drop-off at a doctor’s office, says Lothar Wieler, head of the institute. “There will need to be more such solutions,” Wieler told reporters on March 9 in Berlin. “Otherwise, we won’t be able to handle the number of patients needing tests.”
With demand surging, Landt is trying to rent space in a building across the street to expand packaging and mailing—the bottleneck of his operation. He’s hired a team of students who sit at a long table packing the kits in flat plastic bags, and he bought a used machine that folds instruction manuals to fit in the bags. His 21-year-old son, Aaron—a math student—oversees labeling. (“It’s a 60-hour-a-week part-time job,” Landt says.) His wife, Constanze, a biology Ph.D. in charge of TIB’s procurement, anticipated the demand surge more than a month ago and laid in extra supplies of the basic chemicals for the tests. Without that, “nothing would be working anymore,” Landt says, but those stocks are running low. The next challenge, he predicts, will be keeping up with likely mutations of the virus, which would render his tests less reliable. “A virus like this is a major evolution machine,” he says before hustling back to his office. “We can calm down when there’s a vaccine.” —With Tim Loh and Heejin Kim
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