GeneOne, Inovio's MERS vaccine enters PhI at Walter Reed

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With an eye on an "emergent global health concern," South Korea-based GeneOne Life Science teamed up with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) this week to take its vaccine for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) into a first-in-human trial at the institute.

WRAIR's Stephen Thomas

GeneOne's vaccine, which it is co-developing with Inovio ($INO), earlier this year showed 100% protection from MERS in a preclinical challenge trial in mice, camels and monkeys. According to WRAIR infectious diseases physician Stephen Thomas, the institute wants to learn about the vaccine's potential as soon as possible because "U.S. military personnel could be at risk in the event of a large scale MERS outbreak," he said in a statement. WRAIR is handling the Phase I trial procedures and covering the costs.

Earlier this year, a MERS outbreak in South Korea infected nearly 200 people and killed 36.

Since its emergence a few years ago, MERS has claimed nearly 600 lives and infected 1,650 people globally. Those figures, plus the fact that scientists know some of the characteristics of the virus, left some experts frustrated over the summer at the fact that there are no vaccines or licensed therapeutics against MERS.

At the time, Reuters reported that Big Pharma companies weren't sure of the economics of a MERS vaccine and that no governments had stepped up to pay for research costs. The lack of progress against the virus left some experts, plus philanthropist Bill Gates, to call for a system in which governments and industry work together to back early vaccines research.

So far, much of the MERS work has been preclinical, conducted by biotechs such as Greffex, Inovio and Novavax ($NVAX). However, over the summer, the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich ushered its candidate into a Phase I trial. Following immunization with that candidate, dubbed MVA-MERS-S, mice demonstrated "markedly impaired" virus replication and lower numbers of virus genome in lung tissue, the university said.

Just last month, Saudi and U.S. health officials were said to be discussing the preparation of a MERS vaccine in advance of another MERS outbreak, while Brighton Biotech separately said it had acquired rights to commercialize MERS and SARS vaccines from a research consortium whose members include the Sabin Vaccine Institute, among others.

- here's the release