Chinese vaccine developer Shanghai Zerun Biotechnology and its parent company Walvax will receive extra funding to advance the early stage clinical trials of a Covid-19 shot against all variants of concern, including Omicron.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations – a global foundation that funds vaccine development – made the announcement on Tuesday. CEPI said it would invest US$8.15 million to support phase 1 and 2 trials of the new vaccine to protect against multiple Covid-19 variants being developed by Zerun Bio in Mali, as well as to support a vaccine against the original coronavirus strain.
That additional funding will bring the total provided by CEPI to Zerun Bio for Covid-19 vaccine development to US$25.1 million.
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The Oslo-based foundation in July said it would work with the Chinese company as part of its programme to develop next-generation Covid-19 vaccines to protect against new variants. CEPI is also supporting a recombinant protein vaccine being developed by South Korean company SK Bioscience and an intranasal Covid-19 vaccine being developed by the University of Hong Kong.
At present, all of the Covid-19 vaccines in use around the world are based on the original coronavirus strain identified in the early stage of the pandemic. They also require booster doses as immunity wanes over time. While these vaccines still offer protection against severe Covid-19 outcomes, the variants of concern that have since emerged – such as the Delta and Omicron strains – have exposed their limitations.
The highly mutated Omicron variant has been found to be better at evading protection from vaccination and early studies have also shown there is a higher risk of reinfection. That has revived interest in developing new “universal” vaccines that could provide broader protection.
“We must now prioritise development of broadly protective vaccines like the universal influenza vaccines we have been working towards in recent years,” David Morens, Jeffery Taubenberger and Anthony Fauci from the US National Institutes of Health wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine in December.
Scientists at several universities as well as the US military’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research have been working on so-called pan-coronavirus vaccines.
For its recombinant vaccine candidate, Zerun Bio has made structural changes to the spike protein of the virus – which plays a key role in infecting cells – to improve its ability to trigger an immune response against new coronavirus variants.
Early study results against the original virus have shown the experimental vaccine has a good safety profile and it induced a high level of immune response in adults after two doses, according to a CEPI statement. “The clinical serum demonstrated a good cross-neutralisation effect on Beta and Delta strains,” it said.
In preclinical studies, Zerun Bio’s multi-variant vaccine – being developed using the same technology – also “demonstrated a broad spectrum of cross-neutralisation results” for the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron strains.
“Covid-19 continues to evolve, and we cannot predict which path it will take next, so it’s vital that we continue to invest in globally accessible vaccines that are effective against a broad range of possible variants,” said Richard Hatchett, chief executive of CEPI. “Such vaccines can put us a step ahead of the virus, so they are central to the long-term control of Covid-19, and vital to global health security.”
The foundation said the experimental vaccines it was funding, if successful, would be bought and distributed by the Covax Facility, a global initiative to promote equitable access to Covid-19 shots which CEPI co-leads.
More from South China Morning Post:
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- WHO laments 500,000 Covid-19 deaths since Omicron
- Did Omicron jump from mice to men? Chinese scientists say it’s possible
- WHO, Commonwealth make Covid-19 jabs access plea for vulnerable small nations