Elon Musk is full of surprises.

Some eyebrows were raised earlier this year when the Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO proclaimed that his company would make ventilators for COVID-19 patients. But now Tesla appears to be moving into an even more intriguing arena that could impact the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Last week, Musk engaged in a conversation on Twitter about COVID-19 testing. When asked about about his thoughts on RNA vaccines as an approach for immunizing against the novel coronavirus, he replied that he thinks "synthetic RNA (and DNA) has amazing potential." Musk then tweeted, "Tesla, as a side project, is building RNA microfactories for CureVac & possibly others."

Could Tesla really be helping to make RNA vaccines, possibly even one for COVID-19? It doesn't appear that Musk was joking.

Tesla charging station

Image source: Tesla.

The CureVac connection

Musk specifically stated that Tesla is working with CureVac. Although the German biotech isn't well-known in the U.S., CureVac is one of 18 drug developers with COVID-19 vaccines in clinical testing.

CureVac focuses on the development of therapies and vaccines that use messenger RNA (mRNA). You're probably at least somewhat familiar with a related molecule, DNA, which contains the instructions for building proteins. Messenger RNA delivers the instructions from DNA to the body's protein-making factories -- ribosomes.

The idea with mRNA therapies and vaccines is to customize mRNA to direct ribosomes to make proteins for fighting a specific disease or creating antibodies for fighting a specific virus. Elon Musk was exactly right when he tweeted that these therapies have "amazing potential."

Several drugmakers are working on mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in addition to CureVac. Moderna is the current leader of the pack in terms of clinical progress. BioNTech and its partner, Pfizer, recently announced positive preliminary early stage results for an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

CureVac isn't just focused on COVID-19, though. The biotech's pipeline includes two cancer immunotherapies and a rabies vaccine in early stage testing using the mRNA approach.

Musk's "microfactories"

What are the "microfactories" that Musk referenced in his tweet? It seems to be what CureVac calls mobile mRNA "printers".

Last year, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) agreed to fund up to $34 million for CureVac to develop a prototype of an mRNA printer. This goal of this technology is to be able to produce several grams of mRNA within a few weeks. That's enough mRNA to produce over 100,000 doses of a vaccine.

CEPI CEO Richard Hatchett stated then that "CureVac's vaccine platform could be a game-changer." The hope for CureVac's mRNA printers is that they could be used for quick delivery to regions where viral outbreaks are occurring and be used in hospital pharmacies for manufacturing personalized medicines.

It's possible that CureVac's mRNA printers could be used to produce the company's COVID-19 vaccine in the future. However, CureVac also has a manufacturing facility in Tubingen, Germany, that can make several hundred million doses annually. 

Why Tesla?

Why would CureVac pick Tesla as a partner to build mobile units for producing mRNA for vaccines and other therapies? It actually makes sense.

Musk confirmed in a tweet that the Tesla Grohmann Automation facility is working with CureVac on the "microfactories." Tesla Grohmann is located in Prium, Germany, only around 250 miles away from CureVac's headquarters.

Tesla completed the acquisition of Grohmann Engineering in early 2017. The company has been a leader in automated manufacturing for over 30 years. Its expertise in microprocessors, memory chips, lithium-ion battery cells, and robotics appears to be a great fit for helping build CureVac's mobile mRNA printers.

Elon Musk hinted that it could work with other drugmakers in the future in their efforts to manufacture mRNA. Could Tesla be on its way to expanding into the healthcare sector? Probably not, but the company's technological prowess is certainly applicable to other industries.

Musk even tweeted on Thursday that "Tesla will make fabulous short shorts in radiant red satin with gold trim." However, he added that the company "will send some to the Shortseller Enrichment Commission to comfort them through these difficult times," a sarcastic reference to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

With this tweet, Musk was joking. At least I think he was. You can't know for sure with Elon Musk.