CureVac snags new Gates Foundation backing for universal flu, malaria mRNA vaccine work

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation left open the possibility for additional funding when it made a $52 million equity investment in CureVac in 2015. The mRNA specialist now revealed that the foundation is offering two new grants to develop vaccines against influenza and malaria.

Under the agreement, if these new Gates Foundation-funded CureVac vaccines finally make it to the market, they will be made available at an affordable price in low-income countries.

CureVac didn't say much about the new grants, other than that they will support development of mRNA-based programs that leverage its RNActive platform. The company's technology works by delivering antigen-encoding mRNA molecules to the body to induce both cellular and humoral immune responses.

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Although a relatively new vaccine technique, mRNA has already attracted handsome funding, having created high-profile players like Moderna and BioNTech. For CureVac, the new Gates money is another injection of confidence following a potential $1.8 billion deal with Eli Lilly to work on five mRNA cancer vaccines. Germany-based CureVac is also collaborating with Boehringer Ingelheim in non-small cell lung cancer.

CureVac is also developing a seasonal flu vaccine using the same technology. Dubbed CV7302, the flu shot is slated to enter human testing this year. But the Gates grant will be directed toward a different influenza project—a universal flu vaccine, a field that’s quickly getting crowded as researchers seek better ways to effectively tackle the fast-mutating virus.

“Successfully exploring the potential of the mRNA platform for development of a universal flu vaccine would be a consequential achievement, benefitting much of the world’s population,” said CureVac CEO Ingmar Hoerr, Ph.D., in a statement.

The influenza virus is notorious for constantly mutating, which makes it difficult for scientists to predict which strains to target with their vaccines for the coming season. Amid the worst flu season in years, the widely used egg-based vaccine production is drawing fire for diminishing the flu shot’s effectiveness.

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Both problems emphasize the need for a universal flu vaccine that protects against all influenza A strains for multiple seasons. Now backed by the Gates Foundation, CureVac joins companies such as Sanofi Pasteur, BiondVax, FluGen and Vaccitech in targeting that goal.

The new grant for CureVac’s malaria vaccine program came as GlaxoSmithKline’s Mosquirix—the world’s first approved malaria vaccine—is undergoing pilot, real-world testing in three African countries. The Gates Foundation was also the financial force behind development of that recombinant vaccine.

Bill Gates’ long-lasting commitment to malaria, which caused 445,000 deaths in 2016 according to WHO estimates, has reached beyond the GSK shot. The Wistar Institute recently announced Gates Foundation funding of $1.5 million to back a partnership with Johns Hopkins University and Inovio to advance a synthetic DNA malaria vaccine.