CEPI taps NEC to develop betacoronavirus vaccine


CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and NEC Corporation has announced the latest funding award under its new windowUS$200m programme to advance the development of vaccines that provide broad protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants and other betacoronaviruses.

CEPI will provide seed funding of up to US$4.8m to NEC OncoImmunity AS (NOI), a Norway-based subsidiary of NEC, which specializes in artificial intelligence-driven biotechnology, to support the initial development of broadly protective betacoronavirus vaccine candidates.

NEC, through NOI, will lead a research consortium including the European Vaccine Initiative (EVI) and Oslo University Hospital to deliver a project which aims to establish preclinical proof of concept for a vaccine based on mRNA technology that protects against a broad range of betacoronaviruses.

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NEC will apply its experience and capabilities in artificial intelligence-powered design of immunogens to identify novel vaccine antigens with broad reactivity against betacoronaviruses. The lead antigens will be selected iteratively and validated in preclinical studies against known betacoronaviruses that already pose a significant epidemic or pandemic risk, such as SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2 & MERS-CoV.

If this innovative approach is proven to be successful, it may also be applicable for developing vaccines against other pathogens in the CEPI portfolio, including ‘Disease X’ – unknown pathogens with pandemic potential that have yet to emerge.

CEPI is committed to the principle of equitable access to the vaccines it funds. Under the terms of the funding agreement, NEC has committed to achieving equitable access to the outputs of this project, in line with CEPI’s PDFEquitable Access Policy.

Betacoronaviruses are types of coronavirus that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which have been responsible for major epidemics in Asia and the Middle East in recent years, and also SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, said, “Coronaviruses have now proven their pandemic potential with devastating consequences, and COVID-19 won’t be the last coronavirus to threaten humanity. That’s why CEPI’s ambitious programme to develop globally accessible vaccines that protect against a broad range of coronaviruses – before those pathogens emerge – is critical to global health security.

“Japan has a proud history of global health leadership and has long championed the role of research and development in fighting emerging infectious diseases, including the Government of Japan’s critical role as a founding member and major investor in CEPI. I am delighted that CEPI will partner with NEC Corporation – our first collaboration with Japanese industry – to advance this innovative, AI-driven approach to vaccine design, which could help take the threat of coronaviruses off the table if it is proven to be successful.”

Nobuhiro Endo, Chairman of the Board, NEC Corporation, commented, “Dealing with the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on people’s lives. The hard lessons will remain with us for decades and it is crucial that we arm ourselves against future invisible enemies. We are elated to partner with CEPI on this mission to develop vaccines against coronaviruses using our advanced AI technologies. While this partnership is a recognition of NEC’s expertise and growing contribution to healthcare, it also acknowledges Japan’s leadership in advancing drug development through breakthrough technologies. We will continue to mobilize the resources of the NEC Group for this collaborative effort to ensure global health security.”

Richard Stratford Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, NEC OncoImmunity AS, said, “We are extremely honored to have CEPI place its trust in the quality of our technology and the expertise of our scientific teams. Our experience with COVID-19 has taught us that an ideal vaccine must remain robust against an ever-evolving viral landscape. Our AI will assess viral regions that do not mutate rapidly and are shared among SARS, SARS-CoV-2, MERS-CoV and other known betacoronaviruses. I am confident that our unique approach in identifying and selecting antigens that could elicit broader cytotoxic T cell and antibody responses is well positioned to help create broadly protective betacoronavirus vaccines that could protect the global population against multiple betacoronavirus threats on a long-term basis.”

Tagaya Nobunao, Senior Assistant Minister for International Affairs, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare said, “We are proud to see NEC become the first Japanese company to participate in CEPI’s activities for promoting vaccine development in response to and in preparation for potential pandemics, which is a common issue for all humankind. In February 2022, the Government of Japan announced a new contribution of US$300 million to CEPI over the next five years, and has been actively supporting the development of vaccines in the international community. We expect that NEC will contribute to global health with the development of next-generation vaccines using the world’s most advanced AI.”

Ken Ishii, Professor, the Institute of Medical Science, the University of Tokyo said, “For the Japanese vaccine industry, NEC’s participation in this global challenge is great news. We look forward to it contributing to the early countermeasures against pandemics by advancing the speedy development of safer and more effective vaccines with the new science approach of utilizing AI.”

Strengthening our defenses against coronaviruses

Through COVID-19, coronaviruses have now demonstrated their devastating pandemic potential. The emergence of a coronavirus combining the transmissibility of COVID-19 with the lethality of SARS or MERS would be catastrophic, so developing vaccines that provide broad protection against the whole betacoronavirus genus is therefore vital to our global health security. CEPI is working closely with partners to advance work in this area as quickly as possible.

The award announced today is the eighth programme to be funded by CEPI to advance the development of vaccines that provide broad protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants and other betacoronaviruses. This work forms an important part of CEPI’s next new window5-year plan, published in March 2021, which aims to reduce or even eliminate the future risk of pandemics and epidemics.