With hard cash from U.K., Imperial to kick-start next-gen COVID-19 vaccine trials this month

As the U.S., Germany and France start funneling more cash into their life sciences for a solution to the COVID-19 problem, the U.K. is following suit with a new type of vaccine.

All told, $46 million ($56 million) is being injected by the British government, including £5 million in philanthropic gifts, into a new RNA vaccine attempt from Imperial College London.

The tests, which have been preclinical to date but will now be used across 300 healthy volunteers in the “coming weeks,” will be the first test of a new self-amplifying RNA technology that has the potential to “revolutionise vaccine development and enable scientists to respond more quickly to emerging diseases,” according to the government.

Many traditional vaccines are based on a weakened or modified form of a virus, or parts of it, but the Imperial vaccine is based on a new approach. It uses synthetic strands of genetic code (called RNA) based on the virus’s genetic material.

The final vaccine consists of RNA strands that will be packaged inside tiny fat droplets and, when injected, instruct muscle cells to produce virus proteins. It does not create copies of the virus and does not cause changes to the cell’s own DNA.

If the vaccine shows a promising immune response, then phase 3 tests would be kick-started as soon as possible, and trials would be “planned to begin later in the year” with around 6,000 healthy volunteers to test its effectiveness.

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Kate Bingham, the U.K.’s Vaccine Taskforce chair, said: “I am delighted that Imperial College have so quickly advanced to the clinical trial stage. Their self-amplifying technology has the potential to be a real game-changer, not only for a COVID-19 vaccine but for the development of future vaccines. It’s a great example of the world-leading life sciences sector in this country.”

This follows other promising research out of the U.K.’s University of Oxford alongside COVID-19 partner AstraZeneca, which are ramping up manufacturing capacity and trials of their vaccine candidate, known as AZD1222. This shot, developed by the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, contains the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, the virus causing the disease COVID-19.

It isn’t replicating, so it can’t cause an ongoing infection in recipients. The Big Pharma hopes the vaccine can deliver a strong immune response from one dose by triggering the body to produce the spike protein and attack the novel coronavirus upon infection.

There are more than 130 vaccines currently in development, though most are still in the preclinical phase; U.S. biotech Moderna appears to be a front-runner, using its messenger RNA approach already in phase 2, with phase 3 on the horizon.

A similar approach is being taken from German companies CureVac, which saw its government take a 23% stake in the biotech this week, and rival BioNTech, which is partnered with Pfizer and started clinical tests in April.

GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi and Vir are also some of the bigger names combining to create a vaccine using different approaches than their rivals are.

In recent weeks, countries where these companies are housed have been offering generous cash sums and incentives to help them speed through vaccine development—the only surefire way out of this pandemic in the long term—and return to economic normalcy.  

It also comes as questions arise about how any approved vaccine will be distributed fairly across the world, at what cost, and whether countries where these inoculations were made will be getting preferential treatment.