Researchers in Pittsburgh, Paris and Vienna Win Grant for COVID-19 Vaccine

An international academic-industry partnership has secured the funding necessary to develop a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is responsible for the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The international, intergovernmental organization Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is committing nearly $5 million to a consortium led by Institut Pasteur in Paris, in collaboration with Themis in Vienna and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research (CVR), to develop a SARS CoV 2 vaccine and take it through phase I clinical trials in humans.

“There are virologists all around the world who have been trained for this moment,” said CVR director and Jonas Salk Chair for Vaccine Research Paul Duprex. “We have colleagues in many parts of the world who collaborate and work with us to share information and share knowledge because this is important.”

Duprex and colleagues are developing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine using a measles vector—meaning a measles vaccine engineered to express SARS-CoV-2 proteins on its surface—to generate immunity to the virus.

Measles is an attractive vector because the measles vaccine has proven safe and effective for billions of children over the past 40 years.

“Our versatile, plug-and-play manufacturing technology affords us the advantage of accelerating the discovery and development of a vaccine candidate against the highly infectious and pandemic coronavirus,” said Erich Tauber, CEO of Themis.

And creating new measles vector vaccines is a well-established process. Chikungunya, dengue, Ebola, HIV-1, Lassa, MERS, RSV, SARS, West Nile and Zika all have experimental measles vector vaccines. Several of these have even advanced through clinical trials.

“We are delighted to continue our long-lasting collaboration with Themis and CEPI that has already delivered high potential vaccine candidates for Chikungunya, nearing phase 3, and Lassa fever in phase 1, both emerging infectious diseases representing a threat to global health,” said Stewart Cole, president of the Institut Pasteur.

Scientists at all three institutions are already working on creating the vaccine, and CVR scientists are hard at work designing animal testing protocols that require special biocontainment measures for safe handling of potentially lethal airborne pathogens like SARS-CoV-2.

The CVR’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratories (RBL) are state-of-the-art facilities for research on biodefense and emerging infectious diseases. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has supported this network of labs since 2003, with the mandate that the CVR will respond rapidly to global outbreaks, such as COVID-19, by developing animal models and testing candidate vaccines. CVR is one of a short list of sites in the U.S. to have received samples of SARS-CoV-2 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You have to be the right laboratory who can handle the virus in the right way with the right expertise to safely, carefully, methodically and rigorously understand the disease,” Duprex said. “All of our efforts will be directed to address this rapidly changing public health emergency,” Duprex said. “We are delighted to be part of this multinational, world-class consortium.”

The research team anticipates that by April they’ll have a candidate vaccine ready for animal testing in Paris and Pittsburgh. This will be complemented by the development of an aerosol model of COVID-19 disease at CVR. By the end of the year a total of 60-80 human volunteers in two sites in Europe will have gotten the vaccine. At the same time, Themis will be generating a stockpile of the candidate vaccine in anticipation of a phase II trial starting early next year.

CEPI and their partners will help to accelerate the vaccine through the regulatory process, potentially through an Emergency Use Listing with the World Health Organization.

“It is clear that an effective vaccine against COVID-19 is crucial if we are to beat this virus,” said Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI. “By investing in a range of partners and vaccine technologies, we are giving ourselves the best chance of developing a vaccine that can stop COVID-19 in its tracks.”