The race is still on for vaccines that could tackle coronavirus variants in different ways
The global race to develop new and better vaccines against Covid-19 continues even as several jabs have already been approved and given to tens of millions of people around the world.
The latest WHO data show a pipeline of 263 vaccines, with 81 already in clinical trials. Several are being developed by universities or firms based in the UK.
Many of these vaccines will be needed to meet global demand and address the threat of mutation, which may make the coronavirus resistant to current vaccines.
“There are over 8 billion people around the world, all of whom need a vaccine,” Michael Head, senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, told Research Professional News. “There are variants that will probably, at some point, require revised vaccines, and an immune system that will wane and will need new immunisation campaigns and roll-outs.”
Another reason for more vaccines, Head says, is to allow easier administration. “Some of the vaccine [projects] are also testing innovative approaches to immunisation, such as administration via an oral pill or via the intra-nasal route,” he said.
In the UK, the government initially backed two high-profile vaccine projects, one at the University of Oxford, which has been approved and already given to millions, and one at Imperial College London, which is still in trials.
Research Professional News looks at several other ongoing efforts at universities and firms around the country.
University of Lancaster
Lancaster University scientists have developed a Covid-19 vaccine that can be administered nasally, as researchers increasingly focus on avoiding needles and other costly barriers to widespread vaccine distribution.
The Lancaster team said its vaccine spray—based on a poultry virus engineered to produce the spike proteins of the coronavirus—is showing good results in animal tests.
They are now applying for funding to go to human trials.
Oxford Brookes University
Oxford Brookes spin-out company Oxford Expression Technologies is helping Australian-based biotech firm Vaxine Pty Ltd to develop its Covax-19® vaccine, which is undergoing phase 1 trials.
The vaccine, backed by Innovate UK, is based on a recombinant spike protein manufactured inside insect cells.
“Insect cell systems offer many benefits, including safety, high yields and low costs, and allow rapid vaccine strain changes in the event the virus mutates,” said Robert Possee, chief executive of Oxford Expression Technologies.
Despite the firm’s expertise, an audit by the UK government found that the country does not, at present, have the capacity to produce vaccines at scale using the insect cell approach.
“We hope to work with Vaxine Ltd to correct this deficiency to the benefit of the UK and other countries, not only for Covid-19 but other much needed vaccines,” Possee said.
University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University
Scientists at the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University are contributing to a novel DNA-based vaccine candidate, SN14, developed by Oxfordshire-based Scancell Holdings plc.
The project builds on Scancell’s success in producing a cancer vaccine using the same DNA platform, which Nottingham University describes as “safe, cost-effective and suitable for rapid and large-scale manufacture”.
Virologists at Nottingham have identified parts of the coronavirus to target, while scientists at Nottingham Trent helped screen the vaccine for its capacity to trigger immune responses against Covid-19.
The vaccine candidate targets two virus proteins, nucleocapsid and spike, which the team believes will trigger both T-cell and antibody responses, making for better immunity.
“Vaccines are the long-term solution and we believe our combined high avidity T-cell and neutralising antibody approach has the potential to produce a second-generation vaccine that will generate an effective and durable immune response to Covid-19,” said Lindy Durrant, chief scientist at Scancell and professor at University of Nottingham.
University of Cambridge
At Cambridge, a team led by Jonathan Heeney, founder of the spin-out firm DIOSynVax, is hoping its candidate—DIOS-CoVax2—will enter human trials this year backed by £1.9m of Innovate UK funds.
It uses synthetic DNA to “deliver custom-designed” antigens, which DIOSynVax says “should be safe for widespread use” and can be made and distributed at low cost.
The approach involves targeting specific parts of coronavirus proteins, which could also protect against other related viruses that may spill over from animals to humans.
“It isn’t the first out of the blocks, but it has a longer usability in the future,” Heeney told the BBC last month. “It hopefully will be the vaccine that will come along to make sure that new future variants will be taken care of.”
A trial of the vaccine using a needle-free injection system is being planned at the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.
“It is especially exciting that the clinical trial will test giving the vaccine through the skin using a device without needles,” said Saul Faust, director of National Institute for Health Research Southampton Clinical Research Facility.
“Together with stable DNA vaccine technology, this could be a major breakthrough in being able to give a future vaccine to huge numbers of people across the world.”
University of Bristol
Two separate vaccine candidates are being pursued at Bristol. Imophoron, a university spin-out at the Unit DX Incubator in Bristol, has been designing candidates that use a self-assembling “virus-like” particle as a delivery vector.
The approach would allow only a specific and small part of the virus particle to be exposed to the immune system, reducing potential side-effects.
The team uses a protein vector that is heat stable, meaning it is unlikely to need refrigeration and could be easily shipped and used globally.
Meanwhile, a separate effort by the university and the Hanoi-based Vaccine and Biological Production Company No 1 (Vabiotech), is pursuing a vaccine using recombinant baculoviruses grown in insect cells.
The work builds on a partnership to share cutting-edge knowledge that predates Covid-19 through the Future Vaccine Manufacturing Research Hub, a collaborative initiative supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
The partnership has been exploring the scale-up of production of vaccines using a “powerful recombinant production technology” called ‘MultiBac’ and pioneered by Imre Berger, professor at Bristol.
According to the team, the technology promises to produce “novel vaccines in large quantities in insect cells that can be easily cultured at low cost”.
ConserV Bioscience, an Oxfordshire-based biotech company, is working with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States to design a broad-spectrum coronavirus vaccine that could, potentially, also tackle MERS and SARS.
“We have identified regions within the proteins of the virus that are not susceptible to change and, if effective, the vaccine promises to protect against a broad spectrum of current circulating coronavirus strains and future emergent ones,” said Kimbell Duncan, chief executive officer of ConserV Bioscience.
Their candidate uses messenger RNA, a similar approach to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which have to be kept at cold temperatures.
But the team hopes its formulation will improve storage and transport conditions compared with other mRNA vaccines.
The work was funded by the Department of Health and Social Care through a Small Business Research Initiative programme managed by Innovate UK.
Another UK-based biotech, iosBio headquartered in Burgess Hill in West Sussex, has partnered with a US-based company, ImmunityBio, to develop Covid-19 vaccines in a pill form, which is now in clinical trials in the United States and South Africa.
The vaccine is designed to activate the immune system through virus-specific T-cells and generate memory B-cells with neutralising antibodies, which ImmunityBio said could protect against emerging coronavirus mutations.
iosBio’s work on the underlying technology for oral delivery was backed by two Innovate UK grants worth £2.2 million.