On the heels of Themis deal, CEPI hands Inovio $56M for Lassa fever and MERS vaccines

A month after doling out its first grant ever—to help Themis develop vaccines against Lassa fever and MERS—the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has promised to fund Inovio’s efforts in the same diseases.

The public-private vaccine initiative will provide up to $56 million over five years to support Inovio through phase 2 development of INO-4500, its Lassa fever vaccine, and INO-4700, its MERS candidate. The groups hope clinical safety and immunological data, plus investigational stockpiles to be funded by additional grants, will be ready in time for efficacy testing during outbreaks.

Inovio is developing the two candidates based on its DNA vaccine platform called ASPIRE. The technology incorporates optimized antigenic genes, which can be translated into protein in cells to trigger both T-cell and antibody responses. Last month, the coalition granted Austrian biotech Themis $37.5 million to develop Lassa and MERS vaccines using its measles vector platform.

Inovio has already shown it can leverage its DNA platform quickly. In 2016, that technology helped Inovio become the first company to move a Zika vaccine into human studies. VGX-3100, the company’s immunotherapy that uses the same technology to treat HPV-related cervical precancer, has entered phase 3.

RELATED: Themis nabs CEPI’s first grant of $37.5M to develop Lassa and MERS vaccines

“The Inovio/CEPI partnership demonstrates the confidence of both organizations in Inovio’s DNA vaccine platform to rapidly produce countermeasures against emerging viral threats, potentially protecting large populations from a pandemic,” Inovio President & CEO J. Joseph Kim said in a statement.

Inovio has been collaborating with the U.S. Army on its Lassa fever candidate. In a preclinical study funded by a $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, researchers found the vaccine provided protection to all nonhuman primates challenged with a lethal dose of the virus. None of the vaccinated animals displayed any signs of the disease.

An Inovio spokesperson told FierceVaccines that the Lassa immunization is expected to move into human studies in the first quarter of 2019.

As for the MERS candidate, Inovio is working on that program with South Korea’s GeneOne Life Science. Interim phase 1 data showed the vaccine induced high levels of binding antibodies in 57 of 62 evaluated subjects, and all but one generated an immune response against the virus.

RELATED: Inovio, GeneOne to test MERS vaccine in South Korea following deadly outbreak

Founded in 2017 by governments and nonprofits to focus on development of vaccines to better prepare the world for outbreaks, CEPI has picked Lassa, MERS and Nipa as its initial targets. No vaccines are available for the diseases.

The two deals with Themis and Inovio are just the beginning for CEPI, as the coalition plans to fund more candidates for those two diseases in development "to ensure the best chance of long-term success," said CEPI spokeswoman Rachel Grant.

CEPI is also in the process of selecting platform technologies that can rapidly develop vaccines against unknown pathogens. Grant previously told FierceVaccines that a decision on that effort is expected by the end of June.

Lassa fever, a disease endemic mainly in West Africa, is currently spreading in Nigeria, resulting in more than 400 confirmed cases and over 100 deaths this year as of April 8, according to local health authorities. MERS typically spreads in Saudi Arabia and in neighboring countries, but an outbreak in South Korea in 2015 caused 186 confirmed cases and 38 deaths.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to show that CEPI intends to fund more MERS and Lassa developers.