UK funds £32m project by Cambridge scientist to develop 'future-proofed' Covid-19 vaccine

Initiative is aimed at maximising the protection that shots can provide against global threats

Prof Jonathan Heeney is leading a project to develop a vaccine to protect against future coronavirus pandemics. Photo: Nick Saffell/University of Cambridge

The UK is funding a £32 million project at Cambridge University to develop 'future-proofed' Covid-19 vaccines.

It is hoped the research will provide protection against existing and future variants of the Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, as well as other major coronaviruses, including those that cause Sars and Mers.

The initiative will be run by DIOSynVax, a biotech arm of the University of Cambridge, led by Prof Jonathan Heeney, head of the university's Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics, and will see them design and select the lead antigen through preclinical studies. The scientists will also undertake initial clinical developments.

DIOSynVax uses the combination of protein structure, computational biology and immune-optimisation to maximise the protection that vaccines can provide against global threats including existing and future virus outbreaks.

The investment from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) will support the development of the vaccine.

If DIOSynVax’s novel antigen design is successfully deployed, it could potentially be used to enable rapid development of vaccines against unknown pathogens with pandemic potential that have yet to emerge.

"We are excited to be working with CEPI on its ground-breaking mission to leverage revolutionary science and technology to outmanoeuvre and minimise future pandemic threats," Prof Heeney said.

"Our approach is to be ahead of the next pandemic — to deliver custom-designed, immune-selected vaccine antigens — which is ideal to prevent diseases caused by complex viruses such as the large and diverse family of coronaviruses.

"If successful, it will result in a safe, affordable NextGen vaccine for widespread use.”

CEPI, DIOSynVax and the University of Cambridge have committed to enabling global equitable access to the vaccines developed through their partnership.

Under the terms of the funding agreement, DIOSynVax has committed to achieving equitable access to the outputs of the project.

“The UK government and the country’s world-leading scientific institutions have been pivotal to the global response to Covid-19," said Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of CEPI.

"From the development of the CEPI-supported Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine — which is used in more countries than any other — to the ground-breaking Recovery trial to evaluate life-saving treatments like dexamethasone, British science has played a leading role in protecting the world from Covid-19.

“I am excited to further strengthen CEPI’s strong ties to British science through this partnership with DIOSynVax, Cambridge, to develop a vaccine with the potential to protect against variants of Sars-CoV-2 and other Betacoronaviruses in the future.

"Coronaviruses have now proven their pandemic potential, so it’s imperative for global health security that we invest in research and development now to future-proof the world against the threat of coronaviruses.”

The announcement has come as the UK is experiencing a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases.

Last week 2.6 million people were estimated to have coronavirus, up from 2.4 million the week before, said the Office for National Statistics data.

About one in 26 of the UK population currently has Covid-19.

Updated: March 14, 2022, 1:13 PM