NZ needs to produce its own vaccines
With vaccines the only long-term option to keep New Zealanders safe, building local infrastructure that can produce vaccines capable of backing up international efforts is crucial for our resilience, argues Dr Davide Comoletti
As New Zealand emerges from another COVID-19 lockdown and the Northern Hemisphere braces for winter, scientists around the world are working on new vaccines to stop it in its tracks.
Globally, discussion is growing on the need for second-generation vaccines, amid concerns about waning immunity and the potential need for booster shots.
I am part of a group of scientists collectively known as the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand—Ohu Kaupare Huaketo (VAANZ). Our work on a unique COVID-19 vaccine has moved a step closer, with positive results in pre-clinical trials and efficacy testing now under way in the United States.
VAANZ brings together a multidisciplinary team of local and international collaborators with proven capability in vaccine research, development and manufacturing, including researchers at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Otago and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.
The spike-protein candidates we have developed, from the spike of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, have been specifically designed to raise waning antibody levels and retrain the immune system to recognise virus variants.
The first Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine rollouts were based on the entire spike protein of the original Wuhan sequence. Our team’s vaccine candidate contains specific parts of the spike that stimulate the retention of long-term immunity and now the mutations from the Delta variant.
During the past 12 months, my students and I have been busy engineering different vaccine candidate proteins using parts of the spike of the SARS-Cov-2 virus. By carefully studying the published literature, working closely with Dr Lisa Connor, my immunologist colleague in the School of Biological Sciences at Te Herenga Waka, and by doing our own original designs, we generated dozens of different protein candidates.
By using these proteins as an active ingredient in a vaccine, the human host could potentially develop an immunity to the spikes and prevent the virus from infecting human cells with its genetic material.
We believe that our candidate—targeting two specific regions of the spike and, currently, the Delta variant—will have an advantage in a booster-shot setting, allowing for immunity to be more efficiently retrained towards novel viral variants.
The results from a pre-clinical model by researchers at Te Herenga Waka and at the Malaghan Institute have been promising and are being prepared for publication.
In this model, the antibody levels raised by our vaccine candidate were higher than those found circulating in individuals recovered from COVID-19 and comparable to levels generated by the Pfizer vaccination. Although our studies have not been conducted in humans yet, it still points to very promising candidate vaccines.
A pre-clinical study with a Delta version of the protein candidate is now looking at whether it can boost immunity in those who have already been immunised.
The three best vaccine candidates developed by the team have been filed for intellectual property protection with Wellington Univentures, the commercialisation arm of the University.
Two of them are currently in the United States undergoing efficacy testing by the National Institutes of Health to see whether the vaccine protects from actual viral infection. The results should be known within the next two months.
As a nation it is vital that New Zealand develops its own infrastructure and capabilities when it comes to tackling current and future pandemics.
New Zealand has smartly approached the COVID-19 pandemic in a unique way and it has been very successful. However, we know with the latest Delta spread, vaccines are the only long-term option to keep us safe. Therefore, building local infrastructure that can produce vaccines capable of backing up international efforts for this, and future pandemics, is important for New Zealand’s resilience.
VAANZ has been working with South Pacific Sera to manufacture a vaccine for clinical trial. We hope a Phase I human clinical trial will start next year, dependent on funding.
Dr Davide Comoletti is an Associate Professor in Biomedical Science at Te Herenga Waka —Victoria University of Wellington.
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