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DoD Funding Variable Covid-19 Vaccine Technology

SARS-Cov-2 virus

Scanning electron microscope image of SARS-Cov-2 virus, in orange, emerging from cells (NIAID, Flickr)

20 Aug. 2020. The U.S. Department of Defense is funding work on a Covid-19 vaccine platform that can adjust its formula to protect against future mutations in the virus. The Defense Health Agency awarded a $9.8 million contract to Adaptive Phage Therapeutics in Gaithersburg, Maryland for four vaccine candidates protecting against Sars-CoV-2 coronaviruses responsible for Covid-19 infections.

Adaptive Phage Therapeutics is spun off from the Biological Defense Research Directorate in the U.S. Navy that conducted research on multiple drug-resistant bacteria, or superbugs. One of the directorate’s projects employed phage-display methods that expose interactions among proteins, peptides, or nucleic acids. These screening techniques harness bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria to connect proteins or peptides to their genetic codes. Adaptive Phage Therapeutics licensed rights to that technology in 2017, and now develops precision antibiotics and companion diagnostics for treating people with superbug infections.

The new contract seeks to extend the company’s phage-display technology to discover vaccines against Covid-19 infections, particularly if the virus mutates, which may make it difficult for vaccines now in development to be effective. That technology is geared to identify mutations in microbial genetics that make bacteria difficult to control, and discover vulnerabilities in the mutated bacteria providing targets for new antibiotics.

The company believes that same basic approach can be applied to viral mutations and subsequent vaccines, in this case for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The proposed vaccine technology, says Adaptive Phage, discovers antigens matched to multiple binding sites on the coronavirus surface, triggering an optimal mix of B- and T-cell responses from the immune system.

Adaptive Phage says its technology can also adapt to other medical needs for administering the vaccine, as well as viral mutations. The company says it will investigate formulating the vaccine into an oral lozenge for the primary vaccine or booster, that can be easily manufactured, stored, and distributed.

“The potential benefits of a phage-based vaccine,” says Adaptive Phage co-founder and CEO Greg Merril in a company statement, “include versatility for route of administration — mucosal and intramuscular — including a potential oral lozenge, adaptability to virus mutations, speed of development, and cost-effectiveness.” Merril adds that “we have the capacity to rapidly scale up production in the continental United States. We are fully committed to deploying our facilities and our staff to fight the impact of this public health crisis.”

The current contract, says the company, funds work on four phage-display based Covid-19 vaccine candidates through evaluation in early-stage clinical trials. Adaptive Phage says support for later-stage trials will likely depend on the early clinical studies.

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