News about Covid-19 research in Bavaria

Bernd Sibler and student Tamara Hastreiter
Image: Michael Rabenstein/Uni-Klinikum Erlangen)

Minister of Science Bernd Sibler spoke with experts from Erlangen

 ‘Research is an essential component in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, as new scientific findings provide new opportunities to help people and deal with the pandemic. With its innovative research projects and new approaches to prevention and treatment, our university hospital is both the backbone and spearhead in this fight. It delivers lifesaving results. I was able to see this for myself today in Erlangen,’ emphasised Bavarian science minister Bernd Sibler during his visit. While addressing the student volunteers at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, he emphasised: ‘Your dedication during this extremely stressful situation provides vital support to the staff at the hospital and is a valuable contribution to tackling the pandemic. I would like to express my sincere thanks to you and all the staff for your valuable work.’

In his presentation, Prof. Dr. Klaus Überla, Director of the Institute of Clinical and Molecular Virology at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, member of the Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) and Chair of Clinical and Molecular Virology at FAU, was already looking to the future: ‘We currently assume that the vaccine offers considerably less protection against an infection with the Omicron variant than the Delta variant. However, this does not question the protection the vaccine provides against severe cases of Covid-19,’ the virologist explained. In his report from the Bavarian Corona Vaccine Consortium (CoVaKo), Überla announced some interim results from a study conducted in Bavaria about breakthrough infections where the research team compared the severity of coronavirus cases in 300 vaccinated and non-vaccinated participants from across Bavaria. The levels of antibodies for the coronavirus spike protein in participants suffering from a breakthrough infection – those who had contracted coronavirus despite being vaccinated – were considerably higher than in infected participants who had not received the vaccine. Even four weeks after the infection, the antibodies in non-vaccinated participants had a lower antibody binding capacity than the antibodies in vaccinated participants at the beginning of the infection. Even though the viral load in both groups was similar, non-vaccinated participants often developed a high temperature, fatigue, nausea and a distorted sense of smell, whereas vaccinated participants more often suffered from cold-like symptoms. ‘It is definitely better if you catch coronavirus after being vaccinated than if you are not vaccinated,’ summarised principal investigator Prof. Überla. ‘The difference between the immune response during an infection in people who have and those who have not received the vaccine is also very interesting.’

Side effects after a Covid-19 vaccination

Dr. Susann Hueber from the Institute of General Practice (Director: Prof. Dr. Thomas Kühlein) at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen reported about undesired side effects from the vaccine that are recorded in the CoVaKo study. In the CoVaCo project, Dr. Hueber and her team compare the side effects of various vaccines with each other – for example those that occur after a Covid-19 vaccination or after vaccinations for influenza, tick-borne encephalitis, pneumococcus, and other diseases. The research group initially focused on vaccinations using combinations of two different vaccines. ‘Since the STIKO recommended in spring 2021 that all those who received their first vaccination with AstraZeneca should receive an mRNA vaccine for their second dose, analysing the frequency of reactions to this new vaccination schedule was an important interim goal for us,’ explained Susann Hueber. The analysis involved comparing two groups with each other. The first comprised participants who had received two doses of the same vaccine (AstraZeneca or mRNA) and the second comprised participants who had received AstraZeneca as their first dose and an mRNA vaccine for their second. Over 9000 participants had answered questions about their reaction to the vaccines by the time the interim analysis was carried out. More respondents said that they had at least one vaccination reaction two weeks after receiving an mRNA vaccine as their second dose following AstraZeneca. These reactions included a high temperature, fatigue and pain at the injection site. Women and young people reported vaccination reactions more often. ‘It seems that mixed vaccinations with two different vaccines lead to more reactions or more slight reactions. When comparing both groups however, we saw that the mixed vaccine schedule did not lead to an increased number of health problems for which respondents sought medical advice within a few weeks of the vaccination. The number of visits to the doctor was similar for both groups,’ said Dr. Hueber.

Effective treatment for long Covid


PD Dr. Dr. Bettina Hohberger from the Department of Ophthalmology (Director: Prof. Dr. Friedrich E. Kruse) at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen and from the Chair of Ophthalmology at FAU, presented the results of the four successful treatment attempts for Long Covid using the drug BC 007. She also provided information about the status of the planned clinical phase 2 trial ‘reCOVer’, which is due to start in 2022 and has received 1.2 million euros of funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In addition, Dr. Hohberger reported on the new treatment approach for Long Covid called ‘disCOVer’. ‘Based on our experiences with patients during the last few months, we have been able to develop a diagnostic process for Long Covid that we would now like to establish in Erlangen. We would like to involve five other hospitals and two rehabilitation centres in Bavaria. Our disCOVer concept is based on three Long Covid subgroups for whom we would like to offer the relevant treatment after carrying out targeted diagnostics,’ said Dr. Hohberger. ‘We hope to receive some support from the Bavarian government which will enable us to set up a treatment concept for patients with Long Covid, starting in Bavaria and rolling out eventually to the whole of Germany. There is a huge need for it.’

Oral spray booster against Covid-19

Prof. Überla then presented some results from the Bavarian FOR COVID Programme and a planned follow-on study for protection from transmission using oral spray immunisation – a type of booster mouth spray. The idea behind the study is that vaccinations have two functions. They protect the person who has been vaccinated from developing a severe form of the disease and at the same time they prevent infections from occurring and thus reduce the transmission of the virus among the general population. ‘For this effect, it is important to intercept the virus at the point it enters the body. In the case of coronavirus, we need an immune response directly on the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract,’ explained Prof. Überla. ‘We have now been able to demonstrate that the best way to achieve this protection in the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract is by means of a combination of vaccines. The mRNA vaccine is first injected in the muscle and the second, a viral vector vaccine, is then later applied directly to the mucous membranes. We would like to test this approach as quickly as possible in an initial clinical trial.’

‘People expect answers from science, especially in times of uncertainty. At a university such as FAU which offers the entire spectrum of academic disciplines and has a strong university hospital, scientists can provide the answers to many problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic and they are doing everything they can to help us overcome this crisis,’ explained FAU President Prof. Dr. Joachim Hornegger. As part of his ‘Corona Talks’ series, Prof. Hornegger has talked to experts from FAU and Universitätsklinikum Erlangen about the effects of the pandemic on our society. These short talks are available on YouTube.

Other research projects at FAU and Universitätsklinikum Erlangen on the coronavirus pandemic

Further information

Franziska Männel
Universitätsklinikum Press Office
Phone: +49 9131 85 46670