How rapid-response vaccine technology can combat Disease X
Development of rapid-response vaccine technology will be crucial in enabling the world to achieve the 100 days mission.
mRNA is an ingenious natural molecule involved in the creation of proteins, which are essential to biological processes. This same molecule is the basis of a new breed of mRNA vaccines, which were adapted in a matter of months to combat the SARS-CoV-2.
The synthetic mRNA that was used to make vaccines, like the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, is an example of a rapid-response platform technology.
While the mRNA platform came into its own during the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists had been working on this technology for decades before the pandemic. It was years of scientific investigation that enabled the world to deliver safe and effective vaccines in record time—in 326 days to be precise.
But by further building on these scientific advances, the world can compress this vaccine development timeline even further. In doing so, outbreaks could be contained before they spiral into pandemic threats. Rapid-response vaccine platforms, like mRNA, will be crucial in enabling the world to achieve the 100-days vaccine development goal.
What is a rapid-response platform technology?
Rapid-response platforms broadly refer to systems that use the same basic components as a backbone but can be adapted for use against different pathogens by inserting new genetic or protein sequences.
In the case of COVID-19, scientists were able to create an mRNA molecule in the lab containing the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 within days of its genetic sequence being available.
The engineered mRNA molecule contained the code for the SARS-CoV-2 “Spike Protein”, which the virus uses to infect cells. This fragile mRNA molecule is then packaged into fatty spheres, called lipid nanoparticles, so that this now can survive the journey from the vial to a syringe and into a person’s arm.
Techniques for developing vaccines using such platforms can be set up for rapid use against novel known pathogens and to pathogens that have yet to emerge as human disease threats—also referred to as Disease X. For example, CEPI is supporting several rapid-response platform technologies including: a “molecular clamp” platform being developed by the University of Queensland; a mRNA platform being developed by CureVac; and two separate self-amplifying mRNA platforms being developed by Gritstone and Imperial College London.
Over time, as regulatory authorities gain experience with and gather data on various platform technologies, they will likely become more comfortable about rapidly moving new vaccines into clinical trials. This has been the case with influenza vaccines, which are developed every year on an existing platform.
Why are rapid-response platforms important for pandemic preparedness?
The emergence of the next Disease X is just around the corner. It’s not a matter of if, but when. That’s why it’s critical that the world has multiple, proven, rapid-response platforms at its disposal.
In an optimal scenario, a globally connected viral surveillance network would identify a new viral threat, sequence the genome of the new virus, and make it publicly available in a matter of days.
Vaccine developers could then take this genetic information, “plug” it into their vaccine platforms, which have already been extensively tested, and rapidly produce safe vaccines that are ready for clinical trials and deployment to contain the outbreak.
Pathogens such as influenza and yellow fever have the potential to serve as prototype pathogens for further developing rapid response platforms such as mRNA, showing the value of these platforms beyond that already observed for SARS-CoV-2.
Different platform technologies could also be used to develop a wide range of prototype vaccines for use against different virus families and contribute to the establishment of a library of vaccines that can be used or rapidly adapted if related viruses emerge.
How CEPI is advancing rapid-response platforms
The threat of Disease X has been at the top of CEPI’s priority list since its formation in 2017. It is was this focus that enabled CEPI to respond so quickly to COVID-19, initiating testing of the first COVID-19 vaccines in January, 2020.
CEPI had previously invested in a number of rapid-response platform technologies capable of producing vaccines against unknown pathogens, and it had also identified coronaviruses as serious pathogenic threats. It was able to quickly pivot these projects to address the emergence of SAR-CoV-2.
To continue to advance promising platform technologies, as part of its $3.5 billion pandemic response plan, CEPI will take a number of steps. It will seek to share the cost of further development of the already proven mRNA platforms, focussing on the optimisation of these approaches to enable rapid development of vaccines to stop outbreaks of pathogenic threats.
CEPI will also evaluate the development of new approaches using rapid-response vaccine platforms for our priority pathogen targets, as well as the creation of vaccine libraries to the family of viruses with a high likelihood of a Disease X emergence, further building knowledge and understanding of these platforms. Expanding this knowledge base will be critical: gathering data on safety and immunogenicity of vaccines produced using various platform technologies will be needed to ensure acceptance of their use by health authorities around the world.
Ultimately, over the next 5 years, CEPI will aim to advance three rapid-response platforms through phase 1. But honing the effectiveness of these platform technologies will be useless without developing the associated manufacturing capacity required to produce the vaccines in adequate quantities and in the regions where they are most needed to protect vulnerable populations. Therefore, CEPI will also seek to work with partners around the world to enable more equitable distribution of such manufacturing capacity.
As we have seen with SARS-CoV-2, Disease X can emerge without warning, with deadly consequences. If the world can make safe and effective vaccines within 100 days, we could neutralise the threat of the next Disease X before it has a chance to turn into a pandemic.
We know that rapid-response platform technologies, like mRNA, can significantly reduce vaccine development times: from a matter of years to weeks. And we know that these technologies will play a crucial part in helping us rapidly respond to future pandemic threats. We cannot predict where or when Disease X will strike, but by developing these kinds of innovative vaccine technologies, we can be prepared for it.
Find out more about the 100 days mission here.