Outbreak-focused vaccine coalition earmarks $54.9M for HIV group's Lassa fever effort

Handing out tens of millions of dollars to an HIV-focused organization to develop a Lassa fever vaccine may sound like a far-fetched idea. But that’s just what the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has decided to do—for a valid scientific reason.

The global health coalition has just signed a deal with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) to support development of the latter’s replicating viral vector-based Lassa vaccine candidate, dubbed rVSVΔG-LASV-GPC. It comes with an initial $10.4 million grant to help move the vaccine through preclinical phase, and if new data and progress look good, CEPI could invest up to $54.9 million over five years that also covers stockpile.

CEPI based its funding decision on previous studies that showed the vaccine induced strong immune responses and was highly efficacious in animal models. 

IAVI is known for research in HIV vaccines, but how did it get into Lassa?

In their endeavor to find a potent HIV vaccine, IAVI scientists found that the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) vector platform IAVI applied in HIV vaccines could also be used to deliver and express the glycoproteins of Lassa virus.

“As part of our HIV vaccine efforts, IAVI has gained over a decade of experience in the development and production of viral vector vaccines, with a particular recent focus on the VSV vector approach that will be used to develop the Lassa fever vaccine candidate,” said IAVI President and CEO Mark Feinberg, M.D., Ph.D., in a statement. He added that knowledge gathered from studying the VSV platform could also help make vaccines against other pathogens for which vaccines currently don’t exist.

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The VSV approach has already proven to work in other vaccines, most notably Merck’s Ebola shot rVSV-ZEBOV, which is currently being deployed to fight an outbreak in Congo. Ebola and Lassa belong to different virus families, but they both cause similar hemorrhagic fevers.

IAVI’s Lassa candidate uses a VSV vector provided by one of its research partners, and the organization also has a proprietary VSV vector development effort under way at its Design and Development Laboratory in New York, IAVI spokeswoman Rose Catlos told FierceVaccines.

Besides the shot’s promising scientific profile, IAVI also has access to a network of clinical research centers in Africa and India established through its 15-year partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help accelerate this program, according to Catlos.

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

“IAVI is thinking about Lassa fever vaccine development in terms of global health-focused product development program, where a different model for industry engagement may be needed,” said Catlos. “Therefore, pending appropriate funding and positive results, our intention would be to develop the vaccine through efficacy trials and licensure.”

Batavia Biosciences, a Netherlands-headquartered CMO, will be producing the materials for use in clinical studies.

This is the third agreement CEPI has signed since it launched in 2017 as a new initiative aimed at accelerating development of vaccines where industry interest might be low. It has previously signed a $37.5 million deal for Austria’s Themis Bioscience to develop vaccines against MERS and Lassa fever, and promised up to $56 million for Inovio to develop its candidates against those two diseases.

The public-private coalition identified MERS, Lassa and Nipah as its initial priority areas, with the hope of funding four to six candidates for each disease, CEPI spokeswoman Rachel Grant previously told FierceVaccines. It expects to announce a Nipah deal imminently, said Grant.