NIAID chief: Platform tech will bring a 'major switch'—and shorter timelines—to vaccine R&D

New platform technologies are dramatically speeding up the vaccine R&D process, according to NIAID experts. (Army.mil)

Recent outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika alarmed vaccine experts, who worry that the scientific community isn't prepared for emerging diseases. That concern has sparked new funding and collaboration—and along the way, experts say, vaccine science is advancing to speed up the fight against new pathogens. 

Platform manufacturing, for example, can radically shorten the vaccine development timeline, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases scientists wrote in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

Newer approaches include DNA vaccines, mRNA vaccines, viral vectors, nanoparticles and viruslike particles, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, M.D., told FiercePharma. Scientists can sequence a pathogen in a day or less and insert the genetic material into a vaccine platform "without ever having to grow the virus," Fauci said.

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In Zika, NIH scientists were able to enter human testing with a DNA vaccine just four months after sequencing the virus, cutting years off the development process. The government is testing its shot in phase 2 and could seek an emergency regulatory approval if another outbreak emerges, Dr. Fauci said.

RELATED: NIH kicks off PhI trial for Zika vax as caseload rises in U.S. 

NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci

Historically, preclinical testing took several years, according to the authors, followed by early clinical tests that take another few years. Efficacy testing and regulatory interactions could require another 10 years, they wrote, meaning it could take up to 20 years to develop a vaccine—and that's if everything goes smoothly. Fauci said new technology could shrink the development timeline dramatically.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations formed last year in response to the outbreaks and to better prepare for future outbreaks. The organization has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation and several governments. 

This month, the coalition gave its first grant to Austria's Themis to work on vaccines against Lassa fever and MERS. At the time, a CEPI spokesperson said "the fact that Themis has developed a versatile technology platform for the discovery, development and production of vaccine approaches is very attractive." 

“This means as well as focusing on MERS and Lassa we hope this technology will have value beyond those specific diseases," she added.