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Covid-19 Vaccine for Lower-Income Regions Underway

Robin Shattock

Robin Shattock (Imperial College London)

8 June 2020. Researchers in the U.K. designed a vaccine to prevent Covid-19 infections and is starting an enterprise to make it available to lower-income countries. The vaccine is the work of infectious disease researcher Robin Shattock at Imperial College London, which is forming a social enterprise with venture investor Morningside Ventures in Hong Kong to manufacture and distribute the vaccine.

Shattock and lab colleagues study infections of mucous membranes, with much of their work focused up to recently on HIV prevention. Their research resulted in vaccines with synthetic self-amplifying RNA, made from a single strand of nucleic acid derived from benign alphaviruses to trigger an immune reaction. Plus, the vaccines contain antigens to target that immune reaction against specific invading viruses. The viral nature of self-amplifying RNA also enables it to safely multiply inside its package, giving vaccines more power and allowing for lower doses, compared to other RNA-based vaccines.

Further studies show delivery with nanoscale lipid or natural oil particles provide self-amplifying RNA vaccines more stability, prevent degradation, and boost their immune response. Shattock and associates demonstrate a self-amplifying RNA vaccine targeting the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for Covid-19 infections with lab mice, in a paper submitted for publication in April. The vaccine aims at the characteristic proteins on the surface of the coronavirus spike that penetrates cells and begins the infection process. The results show mice receiving the vaccine produced high concentrations of antibodies that neutralize the virus, and without added adjuvants or stimulation from electroporation that improves uptake of vaccines.

“We have spent an intense six months to fast-track our vaccine to the clinic,” says Shattock in an Imperial College statement, “now we are ready to combat the virus through our clinical trials.”

The researchers are enrolling participants in a early- and mid-stage clinical trial testing the self-amplifying RNA vaccine among 320 healthy adult volunteers in the U.K. A first group of participants, age 18 to 45 will be randomly assigned to receive different dosage levels of the vaccine, with researchers looking mainly for adverse side-effects, but also for its ability to produce an immune response. A later group of participants, with the age range extended to 75, will test the vaccine for safety issues.

Imperial College and Morningside Ventures formed the social enterprise VacEquity Global Health to manufacture and distribute the self-amplifying RNA vaccine in the U.K. and elsewhere in the world, including to lower-income countries, bypassing major pharmaceutical companies, the strategy adopted by most other vaccine developers. The university says this type of vaccine is easier to produce and can be scaled up quickly, with VacEquity Global Health aiming to produce and distribute tens of millions of doses by early 2021.

In addition, Imperial and Morningside are starting a second company, VaXEquity, to advance self-amplifying RNA to treat other health conditions beyond Covid-19. Morningside Ventures makes mainly early-stage venture capital investments in life science start-ups worldwide. The Chan family behind the company is also a prominent philanthropist, as seen in its naming gift to Harvard University’s public health school in 2015.

“These new enterprises,” adds Shatock, “are the most effective way for us to deliver Covid-19 vaccines quickly, cheaply, and internationally, while preparing for future pandemics.”

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