A new UK social enterprise has been formed to bring a promising COVID-19 vaccine to the world, sidestepping large pharmaceutical companies to make sure it’s made available and affordable to the poorest countries.
Founded by Imperial College London, VacEquity Global Health (VGH) will waive royalties and only charge modest cost-plus prices for the vaccine, enough to fund its ongoing research and accelerate global distribution.
VGH’s social mission is to rapidly develop vaccines to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and distribute them as widely as possible in the UK and abroad. “Right now we think the focus should be on how to solve the problem rather than how to make money out of it,” Simon Hepworth, the director of enterprise at Imperial, told the Thompson Reuters Foundation. “Social enterprise fits with our mission: applying scientific discoveries for the benefit of society.”
VGH is supported by Imperial and Morningside Ventures, a venture investor specializing in companies that develop innovative science for the public good. Morningside and Imperial also plan to launch a separate startup called VaXEquity (VXT), which will develop self-amplifying RNA technology used in the vaccine to treat other health conditions beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
The two new ventures are built upon the research of Professor Robin Shattock, who pioneered the technology of self-amplifying RNA. Shattock is Head of Mucosal Infection and Immunity at Imperial College London and co-founder of both VGH and VXT.
For COVID-19, the technology is used to deliver genetic instructions to muscle cells to make the “spike” protein found on the surface of the coronavirus. This protein triggers an immune response in the host to produce immunity to the coronavirus.
The vaccine will enter phase one of human trials with 300 people on June 15. Another trial involving 6,000 people is planned for October. If these human trials are successful, the Imperial vaccine can be distributed in the UK and overseas early next year, Imperial College London reported in a press release.
The quick progress is possible because self-amplifying RNA technology lends itself to rapid manufacturing scale-up, the company says. A large quantity of vaccine doses can be made in manufacturing facilities with a small footprint. The team’s supply chain and manufacturing partners will be ready to produce tens of millions of vaccines from early 2021, the company said.
“We have spent an intense six months to fast-track our vaccine to the clinic,” Shattock said. “Now we are ready to combat the virus through our clinical trials. We are grateful to the thousands of people helping us advance the vaccine: from donors, investors and the government to volunteers for our clinical trials. These new enterprises are the most effective way for us to deliver COVID-19 vaccines quickly, cheaply and internationally, while preparing for future pandemics.”
Kate Bingham, chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, said the UK is making “remarkable” progress in developing a vaccine “and the speed with which Imperial has progressed its self-amplifying mRNA vaccine has been breathtaking. Imperial’s technology shows great promise, so I welcome this further move to accelerate development of a potential vaccine.”
Professor Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London, said VGH and VXT “will fight disease, create thousands of jobs and fast-track scientific advances. We are determined to both defeat the current coronavirus and improve the world’s readiness to fight pandemics for generations to come.”