From left: Malaghan Institute Director Prof Graham Le Gros, Rt. Hon Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand and University of Otago Assoc Prof James Ussher. © Image Services, Victoria University of Wellington

Vaccine alliance formed as collaborators establish national COVID-19 vaccine screening and development programme

27 August 2020, COVID-19, VAANZ, Vaccines

The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington will help lead efforts to secure a COVID-19 vaccine for New Zealand as part of the newly established Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo.

In May, a $37 million COVID-19 vaccine strategy was announced to ensure New Zealand has access to a safe and effective vaccine at the earliest opportunity. From that, the Government has allocated $10 million towards local research and development, charging the group with establishing a national COVID-19 vaccine evaluation platform and developing domestic candidates. 

Malaghan Institute Director Professor Graham Le Gros, who is Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo Programme Director, says the alliance will be rapidly progressing New Zealand’s capability and capacity to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, working with a range of local and international collaborators.

“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.”

Prof Le Gros says the platform will evaluate domestic and international vaccine candidates in pre-clinical models and human trials.

“The aim is to secure access to a safe, effective, scalable COVID-19 vaccine.”

University of Otago’s Associate Professor James Ussher, Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo Science Director, says the alliance has been formed following in-depth discussions with government as to the best approach to securing a COVID-19 vaccine for New Zealand.

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

The programme builds on work already underway following an initial $100,000 investment from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to collaborator Avalia Immunotherapies in April, which allowed local vaccine development to progress.

Prof Le Gros says the alliance’s funding pot has been boosted by donations to the Malaghan Institute, which as well as supporting the platform was accelerating the alliance’s own vaccine research and development efforts.

This includes a recombinant spike protein vaccine being developed out of Dr Davide Comoletti’s lab at Victoria University of Wellington, an inactivated virus vaccine in progress in Professor Miguel Quiñones-Mateu’s lab at the University of Otago and a pan-coronavirus vaccine being explored by Avalia Immunotherapies with international collaborators. 

“We’re excited by the potential of these candidates, but we’ll be putting them through the same rigorous screening process as we will other home-grown and international vaccine options,” says Prof Le Gros.

“What we’re looking at is an international landscape where COVID-19 vaccines are being developed rapidly for an emergency response, while others – the second generation vaccines – are being designed with our increasing knowledge of immunity to SARS-CoV-2. These are ones, for example, that will provide lasting immunity, protect older and more vulnerable people, and can be scaled up and distributed easily and cheaply. At this stage, the more vaccines being researched and developed the better – it gives us choices.

“Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo is positioned to respond flexibly to changes in international developments, New Zealand’s vaccine strategy, and vaccine candidates’ progress. Our job is to help secure the safest, most effective vaccine – or vaccines – for New Zealand, as soon as possible.”