Researchers behind AstraZeneca's COVID shot reunite to prepare for future pathogens

Scientists at the University of Oxford are once again teaming up with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) as part of a new $80 million research pact focused on future pandemic prevention.

The two organizations have now linked up to develop vaccines against “Disease X,” a term for an as-yet-unidentified pathogen that could once again wreak havoc on society just like COVID-19. The partnership announced Tuesday goes hand-in-hand with CEPI’s goal of establishing a vaccine platform that can whip up a new pathogen-fighting shot within 100 days.

The money will pay for Oxford’s vaccine research team to develop vaccines against “high-risk viral families which could be swiftly adapted if a new viral threat is identified,” according to a release. The two will rely on the same vaccine platform that produced AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot, a chimpanzee-based adenovirus vaccine that houses the virus’s spike protein information in DNA, as opposed to the mRNA technology used by the likes of Moderna. Instead, the adenovirus is amended so that it can enter human cells to deliver the genetic information necessary to spur an immune response, but it can’t replicate. 

“The University of Oxford’s team at OVG and the Jenner Institute were able to develop a COVID-19 vaccine with unprecedented speed, in part because of their prior work to develop a vaccine against MERS—a closely related virus from the coronavirus family,” Teresa Lambe, Ph.D., head of vaccine immunology at the Oxford Vaccine Group, said in a release. 

The team’s COVID-19 vaccine became one of the most accessible in the world, having been used in all but 10 countries worldwide, as of a vaccine uptake tracker maintained by The New York Times last updated in March. But it sputtered after demand fell through the roof, in part due to concerns about rare blood clotting events. The company’s production partner, the Serum Institute of India, reportedly announced in October last year that it had to throw out 100 million doses of the vaccine due to low demand and that production stopped in December 2021. 

Nonetheless, CEPI and Oxford are doubling down on the platform, which they say proved through COVID-19 that it could swiftly develop safe and effective vaccines. Information on developed prototypes will be stored in the Global Vaccine Library, a resource being built for scientists to pluck the latest vaccine science to help develop new shots. The funding will also help pay for improvements to Oxford’s manufacturing process, upgrades to the university’s clinical trial site network and campaigns to grow vaccine confidence.