GSK makes adjuvant available to coronavirus vaccine project

GlaxoSmithKline has agreed to make its adjuvant technology available to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations’ (CEPI) effort to create a prophylactic against the coronavirus radiating out from China. 

CEPI is supporting programs to develop coronavirus vaccines underway at groups including Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Moderna. The agreement with GSK positions CEPI to expand the support it can offer partner organizations, specifically by coordinating engagements between the Big Pharma and vaccine developers that want to use its adjuvant technology.

So far, CEPI has coordinated an agreement that will enable the University of Queensland, Australia to incorporate GSK’s adjuvant technology into its effort to expand its rapid vaccine production system to the coronavirus. The university said the adjuvant will support preclinical efficacy assessments.

In theory, the adjuvant should cut the amount of antigen that is needed to create effective vaccines. That benefit, known as antigen sparing, is particularly sought after during pandemic outbreaks as it enables more people to be vaccinated using available antigen supplies. 

“Coupling GSK’s adjuvant systems with the pioneering platform technology we are funding has the potential to make more vaccine available more rapidly—by decreasing the dose of vaccine antigen required to protect each individual,” CEPI CEO Richard Hatchett said in a statement.

GSK has previously applied its adjuvant technology to the development of vaccines against pandemic strains of influenza. In 2009, GSK used AS03, an adjuvant containing squalene, DL-α-tocopherol and polysorbate, to improve the immune response of people who received its Pandemrix vaccine against a pandemic H1N1 strain.

AS03 is at the center of a debate about the safety of Pandemrix, specifically cases of narcolepsy in people who received the vaccine. The cause of the cases of narcolepsy is unclear, though. Faced with an unresolved safety concern and the known, positive effect of adjuvants on immunogenicity, some researchers may decide the benefits outweigh the risks. 

GSK, for its part, thinks the pros and cons support the use of the adjuvant, noting that assessments of Pandemrix gave it a positive risk-benefit profile and that there are reasons to thinks the risks are far lower with 2019-nCOV.

"Though research remains ongoing, currently available scientific data suggests that the occurrence of narcolepsy in the context of the 2009/10 Flu pandemic was associated with a similarity between a protein in the wild type H1N1 virus and a human protein relevant in regulating the sleep cycle, an extremely rare coincidence. Because the similarity was specific to the wild type H1N1 Flu virus, it is unlikely to affect the potential development and use of future 2019-nCOV pandemic vaccine candidates,” a spokesperson for GSK said in an emailed statement.

Editor's note: This article was updated with a statement from GSK.