During the pandemic, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) currently has to deal with a possible conflict of interest in its own ranks: A department head of the institute is also a partner in a company that has developed corona tests, so-called PCR tests.
One of the tasks of the RKI is to develop the national test strategies - so there are overlaps between the work of the institute and the company.
As the Berlin Senate confirmed at the beginning of November at the request of the MP Marcel Luthe (independent), RKI department head Heinz Ellerbrok is also a partner in the company "GenExpress Gesellschaft für Protein Design".
The RKI has been a customer of the company for more than 20 years, explains the institute's spokeswoman.
According to information from the Senate, the company has also been working to a small extent for the Charité since 2005.
According to the company, it works closely with TIB Molbiol, which developed one of the first PCR tests for COVID-19 together with virologist Christian Drosten at the beginning of this year.
Ellerbrok heads the “Public Health Laboratory Support” department at the RKI.
According to the RKI's self-description on its website, its tasks include developing "best practices" for quality management and biosecurity and supporting research projects to strengthen international health protection.
When asked about Ellerbrok's activities, the RKI refers to this general information.
It is not yet clear whether Ellerbrok himself is involved in developing test strategies.
The Federal Ministry of Health refers to WELT's inquiry about this complex to the RKI.
At a press conference last week, its President Lothar Wieler said in response to questions about this involvement of her senior staff member that he did not want to comment on the specific case because he lacked the information.
In general, however, he said it was critical when employees in the field of corona testing were also on business.
"That doesn't work," said Wieler, there are "very clear compliance rules" - "which make it impossible for something like this to happen".
He said the RKI's legal department is currently investigating the case.
At the request of WELT, his spokeswoman explains that the RKI has known about the connection since 2008.
"Mr. Ellerbrok informed the RKI accordingly at the time." The spokeswoman explains that he was not obliged to do so.
The collective agreement for the public service of the federal government stipulates that employees must report in good time and in writing such secondary activities for which they receive money or benefits in kind.
Participation in a company, however, is not an “activity against payment” and therefore does not require notification.
However, an employment lawyer contradicts this: Matthias Jacobs from the Bucerius Law School in Hamburg says that, according to his assessment, commercial investments in companies are also notifiable.
The RKI spokeswoman said that Ellerbrok had - after informing the institute about his involvement - been instructed by the institute's management that he was not allowed to lead any projects funded by the Federal Ministry of Research in which both the RKI and his company were involved.
In addition, he is not allowed to participate in orders that the institute may place with his company.
She went on to say that the legal department's recent review has been completed.
Obviously Ellerbrok behaved according to the rules.
When asked what Wieler might have meant by the compliance rules mentioned, she referred to general regulations at the institute.
The legal department regularly examines contracts for research projects in which the RKI is involved, there are defined drawing processes, and procurement is always carried out via a central point.