Collaborations, Vaccines

As killer virus outbreaks hit unprecedented levels, nonprofit hands $37.5M to Themis to tackle Lassa/MERS vaccines

A nonprofit formed in the aftermath of the recent Ebola outbreak is handing an Austrian biotech $37.5 million to put two killer diseases on its vaccine to-do list: Lassa fever and MERS.

It’s the first deal signed since the 2017 launch of the nonprofit, which calls itself CEPI (pronounced “seppy”) – short for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The group’s goal is to build a global vaccine development fund, devoted to readying pandemic defenses during peacetime. It was formed by the governments of Norway, Germany, India, and Japan, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome, and the World Economic Forum.

The group hopes to raise $1 billion for the fund, which it would dole out to worthy research efforts. They’ve already raised $630 million.

This first infusion of cash is going in tranches over a five-year period to Themis Bioscience, which has a platform tech based on the measles vaccine that might be useful against multiple viruses.

These two infectious diseases are a high priority for CEPI right now, and rightly so. MERS, which hides out in camels and has been circulating the Middle East since 2012, has killed a third of the people it’s infected. And Lassa fever, endemic to the same parts of Africa recently hit by Ebola, is experiencing a period of unprecedented outbreak. Lassa fever normally has a fatality rate of 1%, but in the current Nigerian outbreak it is thought to be closer to 20%, according to the CDC.

Richard Hatchett

“Establishing our partnership with Themis represents not only an important step in our journey towards tackling these diseases, but also a breakthrough in how we can partner and work with vaccine developers when traditional market incentives for development have failed,” said CEPI’s CEO Richard Hatchett.

Themis’ CEO and founder Erich Tauber tells me there’s not enough financial upside to tackling these diseases, which is why vaccines aren’t being developed.

“The outbreaks occur once every five or six years, and that’s not enough market push to get the vaccines developed,” Tauber said. “If a company like Themis went to venture capitalists and asked for investment to develop vaccines for Lassa or MERS, chances are nobody would pay us money to develop those vaccines because they are commercial risks.”

Erich Tauber

The money from CEPI will help bridge that gap. The company hopes the funds will take the company through Phase II, where development might end.

The hope, Tauber said, is to prove the vaccines efficacious in animal studies and safe in large cohorts.

“But from there, the vaccine will most likely have to be used on emergency rules,” Tauber said.

These two latest vaccine projects will be added to Themis’ portfolio, which includes an advanced program for a vaccine against chikungunya virus, a mosquito-transmitted disease that can have debilitating long-term side effects. That program is in Phase II trials in 600 patients.

With its measles virus platform, Themis is also developing vaccines against Zika, RSV, and norovirus, among other areas.

Image: Viral disease outbreak. Shutterstock

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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