University part of new COVID-19 vaccine alliance

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington researchers will play a key role in a new alliance that brings together several organisations in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine for New Zealand.

A scientist in a Malaghan lab coat works with a piece of glass laboratory equipment.

The Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand–Ohu Kaupare Huaketo (VAANZ) is a joint effort between the University, the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, and the University of Otago. The organisations will work together on a national COVID-19 vaccine evaluation and development platform that will assess domestic and international vaccine candidates in pre-clinical models and human trials. The government has allocated $10 million in funding to the group, as part of the $37 million COVID-19 vaccine strategy for New Zealand. The project has also been supported by an earlier investment from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment as well as donations to the Malaghan Institute.

“This alliance is one of the many ways our research has positive outcomes for our communities” says Professor Grant Guilford, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Vice-Chancellor. “We are proud to see the research excellence present here at the University supporting the world in the management of COVID-19.”

Malaghan Institute and VAANZ Director Professor Graham Le Gros says VAANZ will rapidly progress New Zealand’s capability and capacity to work with local and international collaborators and develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’ll be making use of the abundant expertise and capability across the country and our global links to find the best vaccine options for New Zealand and our Pacific neighbours,” he says. “The aim is to secure access to a safe, effective, scalable vaccine that will work for New Zealand and Pacific populations.

“Our job is to secure the safest, most effective vaccine—or vaccines—for New Zealand, as soon as possible. At this stage, the more vaccines being researched and developed the better—it gives us choices.”

VAANZ Science Director and University of Otago Associate Professor James Ussher says VAANZ was formed after in-depth discussions with the New Zealand Government as to the best approach to securing a COVID-19 vaccine.

“There are significant advantages of a national development and screening programme,” he says. “Along with the obvious efficiencies, it gives us the scale needed to engage globally—with organisations like the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and big pharmaceutical companies—and will help develop local biotech capability to ensure we’re best placed for future pandemics.”

The group will also continue its research and development of three local vaccine candidates: a vaccine that targets the spike protein present on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, led by Dr Davide Comoletti from the University’s School of Biological Sciences; an international effort involving University researchers and led by Avalia Immunotherapies, a company originally started with support from Wellington UniVentures, the University’s commercialisation office, that is looking into the possibility of a pan-coronavirus vaccine that targets all coronaviruses; and an inactivated vaccine (where the vaccine contains inert particles of the target disease) led by the University of Otago.

“This is an unprecedented situation, and because there is currently no proven treatment for COVID-19, immunisation of the New Zealand population is the safest strategy out of the current crisis,” Dr Comoletti says. “In this situation I am proud to be part of this project and to be working side by side with a group of talented and smart people in New Zealand.”