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Int’l Group Funding Coronavirus Vaccines

Health screening Shanghai

Health screening at Shanghai International Airport, 22 Jan. 2020 (Ptrump16, Wikimedia Commons)

23 Jan. 2020. An international health coalition is funding development of vaccines against the new coronavirus outbreak spreading quickly through China and to other countries. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, a group of public health authorities, companies, and civil organizations in Oslo, Norway, is contracting for three R&D programs to rapidly develop vaccines against the virus.

Coronaviruses are a family of pathogens that range from the common cold, to more deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) viruses, and are zoonotic, meaning they’re transmitted from animals to humans. World Health Organization says it became aware of several pneumonia cases in Wuhan City, China on 31 December 2019, but by 7 January 2020 authorities in China confirmed this was a new and previously unknown respiratory virus.

As of 22 January, 314 cases of novel coronavirus are confirmed worldwide, with 309 of those cases in China and 270 in Wuhan City alone. The remainder are in Thailand, Japan, and Korea. Of the 270 in Wuhan City, 63 are severely or critically ill, and six deaths are reported from the disease. WHO says in just one day, 32 more cases of of novel coronavirus were reported.

CEPI was formed in 2017, at that year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to develop vaccines against future epidemics. The group aims to stop known infectious disease outbreaks, but also establish platform technologies that can be activated against previously unknown pathogens, the so-called Disease X. As reported by Science & Enterprise in January 2019, CEPI began funding work at a University of Queensland lab in Brisbane, Australia to design a platform technology that can develop, test, and manufacture new vaccines in as little as 6 months.

For the novel coronavirus, CEPI is asking the same Queensland researchers Paul Young, Keith Chappell, and Dan Watterson to apply their technology they call a molecular clamp for developing a new vaccine. The molecular clamp stabilizes synthetic viral proteins used in vaccines by fusing with host cells before entering and infecting the host cells. A multiple-peptide molecule stabilizes the usually unstable fusion proteins, which provides vaccines with better targets and invokes a stronger immune response.

Engaging two biotechs

CEPI is activating another existing relationship for a coronavirus vaccine, with the biotechnology company Inovio Pharmaceuticals in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. In April 2018, CEPI engaged Inovio to develop vaccines against Lassa fever and MERS, using the company’s process, called DMab, short for DNA monoclonal antibody. In DMab, DNA fragments are ingested into cells and exposed to three to four mild electrical pulses, which Inovio calls its Cellectra system, increasing the uptake of DNA to generate more antibodies.

In the new task, Inovio is developing a novel coronavirus vaccine with this process under the code name INO-4800, through preclinical and early-stage clinical trials. Inovio says CEPI awarded Inovio $9 million to develop the vaccine. Funds for the two other vaccine developers were not revealed.

For a third vaccine, CEPI is beginning a new collaboration with Moderna Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, partnering with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, part of National Institutes of Health. Moderna develops protective vaccines against infectious diseases with a technology that synthesizes messenger RNA, a nucleic acid based on the genetic code from DNA, and used by cells to produce amino acids in proteins for cellular functions.

Moderna manipulates the coding region in messenger RNA chemistry to provide instructions for cells to produce proteins with specific therapeutic properties. Those coding instructions are contained in a standard package that appears in most cases like natural RNA to avoid triggering an immune response, and reach the desired cells where the therapeutic protein is needed. For protective vaccines, Moderna delivers messenger RNA with instructions for cells to produce proteins with enough resemblance to viruses to generate an immune response, but are still safe for the recipient.

In the agreement with CEPI, Moderna will design a novel coronavirus vaccine with the Vaccine Research Center at NIAID, which Moderna will then develop and manufacture. NIAID will be responsible for preclinical studies and early-stage clinical trials of the vaccine in the U.S.

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