Profectus, Emergent BioSolutions nab CEPI’s $36M contract for Lassa vaccine work

Shortly after winning $25 million in funding for work on a Nipah virus vaccine, Profectus BioSciences and Emergent BioSolutions have nabbed a new contract worth up to $36 million to develop and manufacture a Lassa fever vaccine.

The award comes from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international public-private group that supports vaccine development efforts before outbreaks. Under the agreement, Profectus will initially receive $4.3 million to wrap up preclinical work, a CEPI spokeswoman told FierceVaccines. The total grant could add up to $36 million over five years, including procurement for stockpiling.

While Profectus is responsible for development, Emergent will offer technical and manufacturing support. Meanwhile, through a separate deal with CEPI, global health organization PATH will help with clinical testing. Emergent also has an exclusive option to license the vaccine from Profectus.

Profectus’ Lassa candidate is based on its VesiculoVax vaccine delivery platform. Vaccines developed from the platform use vesicular stomatitis virus—the same virus in Merck’s Ebola vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV—as vector to deliver immunogens. The platform was originally developed by Yale University under funding provided by the NIH and was then later licensed to Profectus.

The VesiculoVax-vectored Lassa vaccine candidate has completed testing in preclinical models and demonstrated 100% protection against lethal Lassa virus challenge, a Profectus media aide told FierceVaccines. The company’s hope is to initiate clinical trials in about two years.

Currently, there’s no approved vaccine to protect against Lassa. The latest deal comes as Nigeria is fighting its largest ever outbreak of the disease, with 481 confirmed cases, which includes 123 deaths, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control as of Aug. 5.

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It also marks the fourth Lassa program CEPI has backed. It first awarded Themis a $37.5 million grant to develop Lassa and MERS vaccines, then promised Inovio $56 million also for work on those two viruses. In May, it earmarked another $54.9 million for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative to work on a VSV-vectored Lassa vaccine candidate.

Last October, Baltimore-based Profectus already received a contract for up to $22.25 million from the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop a multivalent freeze-dried vaccine against the Zaire and Sudan strains of Ebola virus, Marburg and Lassa.

Under a similar deal structure, Emergent and Profectus have previously received a $25 million CEPI grant to develop a vaccine against bat-borne Nipah virus.

Since its formation, CEPI has identified Lassa, MERS and Nipah as its priority diseases of focus. Besides these disease-specific deals, it is also trying to identify vaccine platforms that could rapidly develop new vaccines against unknown pathogens. For that second project, the initiative is going through due diligence and hopes to make further partnership announcement in the last quarter of this year, said a CEPI spokeswoman.