An 'old school' coronavirus vaccine to be manufactured in a small plant in Scotland could offer “better, longer and broader protection levels” to high risk groups compared to its high tech rivals.
The research team behind the jab, which is to be made in a plant just outside Edinburgh, signed a £1.4 billion contract with the government this week to provide 60 million doses of its Covid-19 shot by the end of next year, if it proves successful in trials.
Unlike front runners including Oxford-AstraZeneca, which have won plaudits for their use of state-of-the-art technology platforms, the team behind the new project is betting on a traditional “inactivated” of the sort being pursued by China.
Experts say that while slower to produce, such vaccines should provide broader protection, especially in vulnerable groups and may be less prone to trigger adverse reactions. This is because they use a deactivated version of the Sar-sCov-2 virus itself rather than a mashup of genetic material from other sources.
The vaccine will be grown in a plant in Livingstone near Edinburgh and is backed by a European team with labs in Vienna Austria and Nantes, France.
In an interview with the Telegraph Thomas Lingelbach, chief executive of Valneva, the biotech behind the project, said he believed it vital for Europe to develop a vaccine which would work for “special target” groups - including the elderly, the immunocompromised and children.
“We have a significant number of new technologies in the Covid environment right now which have never been proven in a full human setting at a large scale, either in terms of safety or in terms of efficacy. And they have never been used in special target populations.
“But we have been very well aware of [inactivated vaccines] for almost 100 years… the technology is well established and has a high probability of success.
“We thought that it's important that we contribute our vaccine technology to this Covid-19 portfolio in order to ensure that we have something that has worked in the past in special target populations and has proven to work at scale.”
The seasonal flu jab is an inactivated vaccine and has a well established manufacturing infrastructure that delivers billions of doses globally each year, Mr Lingelbach added, while Valneva has a “proven” track record.
The company developed and manufactures the only Japanese encephalitis jab, which was approved roughly a decade ago, and is using the same technology in a chikungunya vaccine that is currently in phase three trials.
But it's not yet clear whether Valneva's Covid shot will have the same success.
While Mr Lingelbach insisted that “everything that we have seen is in line with what one would expect” in animal trials, the company is yet to publish data and is not set to begin phase one clinical trials in the UK until December.
Valneva only began developing their candidate in April - the same month as the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate entered human trials. The delay was largely because the company had to reapply to regulators to ensure their laboratories met biological safety level three standards, which are required to handle live coronaviruses.
The slow start means the biotech is unlikely to win the race to develop a jab. But Mr Lingelbach insists the candidate is not a “backup” option if front runners prove ineffective.
“I think if people considered it as a backup option we would not have been able to cut the deal with the UK,” he said, adding that Valneva is also in talks with the European Commission.
Although the new £1.4 billion contract, signed on Monday, is being provided by the UK Treasury, a successful vaccine manufactured in Scotland would be a coup for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon; the plant will become the second largest vaccine production facility in the UK.
That's not to say the company does not face substantial challenges - inactivated vaccines are slow to develop because they need to grow and kill live viruses, while Mr Lingelbach concedes that the current chance of success is roughly 50 per cent.
The immune response triggered also tends to be weaker, meaning the team expects the vaccine to be administered via two initial doses three weeks apart, with a follow up dose a year later. This could complicate distribution.
Meanwhile the bar for success may be higher. It's likely that other immunisations will already have been granted approval by the time Valneva applies to authorities, meaning regulators may put the candidate through a “non-inferiority” process to ensure it is equal to coronavirus vaccines on the market.
But Mr Lingelbach remains optimistic. “I would not be surprised if our vaccine ultimately got the most favorable recommendation in special target populations. So I don't see it as a backup, but as a complimentary product in the portfolio of different vaccines against Covid-19.”
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