U.K. government taps CureVac to target COVID-19 variants with new vaccines

On the heels of COVID-19 pacts with Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, CureVac is joining forces with the U.K. government to tackle the next challenge—new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Under the agreement, CureVac and the U.K. Vaccines Taskforce will study multiple variants of the virus and develop vaccine candidates against selected variants, CureVac said in a statement. The government will expedite clinical trials in the U.K. to get vaccines through emergency or conditional authorizations as quickly as possible.

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If approved, any vaccines that come out of the deal will be distributed in the U.K. and its overseas and dependent territories. The agreement includes an initial supply of 50 million doses of variant vaccines, with plans to manufacture them in the U.K.

The U.K. identified a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, dubbed B.1.1.7 or, simply, the British variant, in the fall of 2020. It appears to be more transmissible, but it’s still up for debate whether it is more deadly. Other variants have been found in South Africa and Brazil. All three have been found in the U.S. in recent months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Today’s agreement will help ensure the UK is best prepared against the emergence of any significant new virus variant as mRNA vaccines can be rapidly adapted to be effective against new virus variants more easily than traditional vaccine technologies,” said Clive Dix, Ph.D., interim chair of the U.K. Vaccines Taskforce, in the statement. "We are constantly tracking the virus so we can identify any significant new variant as quickly as possible; therefore, as part of this agreement, CureVac and the UK Government will assess multiple virus variants and are expected to generate multiple vaccine candidates against those selected.”

Clinical trials run by Pfizer, Moderna and the University of Oxford ended before the emerging variants started to account for a significant proportion of COVID-19 cases in the countries where those trials took place.

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Moderna has since presented in vitro data suggesting its vaccine is as effective against the British variant as the original SARS-CoV-2 variant, while Novavax has reported data for its vaccine against two of the variants. A phase 3 study testing Novavax’s candidate in 15,000 patients found it 89.3% effective against the British strain, but a smaller phase 2b study showed the vaccine did far worse against the South African variant.

The phase 2b was relatively small, and other differences between the studies—such as their definitions of symptomatic disease—may have played a role in the lower efficacy. Yet the clinical data still add to a growing body of evidence that existing COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against this particular variant.

Novavax began working on new constructs against emerging strains early last month. Moderna is taking a version of its vaccine designed to protect against the South African variant into preclinical studies and phase 1.