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CEPI Funding SARS-CoV-2 Variant Vaccines

SARS-Cov-2 virus

Scanning electron microscope image of SARS-Cov-2 virus, responsible for Covid-19 infections (NIH.gov)

10 Mar. 2021. CEPI, an international consortium, is funding development of vaccines to protect against SARS-CoV-2 mutations, starting with B.1.351 discovered in Brazil. CEPI, short for Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations based in Oslo, Norway, also announced a multi-billion dollar global initiative to better prepare for and respond to future pandemics.

VBI Vaccines Inc., a biotechnology company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is receiving a $33 million CEPI award to develop a vaccine against the B.1.351 variant. VBI’s technology uses virus-like particles, parts of viruses to invoke an immune response, but not enough of the virus to cause infections. The company says its approach expands on the few viral particles that assemble naturally from antigens, to create synthetic virus look-alikes, in lipid or natural oil envelopes, for generating an immune response against a range of diseases. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, the company’s lead products were a hepatitis-B vaccine, as well as cancer immunotherapies.

The CEPI grant is expected to support development of the vaccine candidate code-named VBI-2905 that targets the B.1351 spike surface protein, through an early-stage clinical trial. The award is also funding preclinical work on vaccine candidates that protect against multiple SARS-CoV-2 variants, with a technology that can be tuned to quickly respond to other emerging viral variants.

VBI’s Covid-19 vaccines are also supported by the Canadian government that provided $CA 56 million ($US 44.3 million) for a clinical trial in Canada of the company’s vaccine against the original SARS-CoV-2 strain. In addition, VBI Vaccines is developing  a single vaccine to protect against three types of coronaviruses: original SARS-CoV that emerged in 2002, Middle East respiratory syndrome or MERS, and SARS-CoV-2.

Compress vaccine development to 100 days

CEPI announced today a five-year, $3.5 billion program to mitigate emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants worldwide and better prepare for future pandemics. The plan calls for optimizing current vaccines to cover known variants, and continue work on the next generation of vaccines against Covid-19, as well as a broader range of coronaviruses. In addition, CEPI aims to support development of other known infectious diseases threatening public health in many parts of the world: Chikungunya, Lassa Fever, Nipah, MERS, Rift Valley Fever, and Ebola.

To prepare for future yet still unknown pandemics, CEPI plans to support technologies and processes that reduce development and response times. The group notes that it took 314 days for BioNTech and Pfizer to create a vaccine candidate from the original SARS-CoV-2 viral sequence until submitting clinical trial data to regulatory authorities. CEPI wants to shrink that development time to 100 days, with quick-response technologies like messenger RNA, networks of clinical trial sites to test vaccine candidates, and manufacturing facilities to produce needed vaccine supplies.

In addition, CEPI calls for a library of vaccine candidates from different families of viruses to better respond to future pandemics. Those candidates would be tested in preclinical models, such as lab animals, as well as early-stage safety clinical trials. Likewise, CEPI points out the need for networks of labs and testing facilities worldwide, as well as preclinical models for vaccine development. And the group plans to support lower-resource countries to help improve their public health infrastructures and expertise to combat future pandemics, as well as build vaccine manufacturing capacity.

“We are at a critical point in human history,” says CEO Richard Hatchett in a CEPI statement. “We now have the tools to dramatically reduce or eliminate the risk of future epidemics and pandemics. Achieving such a goal will take a coordinated and collective global response, and CEPI’s contributions will be central to this long-term global effort.”

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