Measles Vaccine Could Provide Building Blocks for one against COVID-19

French-led consortium is latest recipient of CEPI funding.

The race for a vaccine against COVID-19 continues with a global death toll above 139,000 and rising. On January 11, scientists at the Pasteur Institute in France released the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, in a first step for what has become a worldwide effort to create a vaccine. Now the Pasteur Institute is part of a consortium along with the University of Pittsburgh and Themis Bioscience to develop a COVID-19 vaccine using the measles vaccine as a vehicle. The consortium is the eighth COVID-19 vaccine project to be funded by Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, receiving $4.9 million USD for the effort.

“The expertise of the Institut Pasteur in emerging infectious diseases is one of the priorities of our Strategic Plan 2019-2023,” stated Steward Cole, President of the Pasteur Institute. “As part of the COVID-19 Task Force set up in January 2020, after our isolation of the coronavirus strains detected in France, the proprietary measles vector (MV) technology was chosen to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 leveraging our extensive experience with human measles vector technology and an MV-SARS-CoV-1 candidate.”

NatureResearch is tracking the global COVID-19 vaccine development effort to help bolster CEPI’s push for a collaborative approach between governments and researchers, and in a recent report described the vaccine race as “unprecedented in terms of scale and speed.” As of April 8, 115 vaccine candidates were identified in various stages of development, a handful of which have received CEPI funding totaling $29.2 million USD.

“A striking feature of the vaccine development landscape for COVID-19 is the range of technology platforms being evaluated, including nucleic acid (DNA and RNA), virus-like particle, peptide, viral vector (replicating and non-replicating), recombinant protein, live attenuated virus and inactivated virus approaches,” the report stated. “Many of these platforms are not currently the basis for licensed vaccines, but experience in fields such as oncology is encouraging developers to exploit the opportunities that next-generation approaches offer for increased speed of development and manufacture.”

The consortium’s approach well-represents this diversity because it’s one of two on a long World Health Organization list of vaccine candidates in pre-clinical phases utilizing the measles vaccine virus as a vector. Indian pharmaceutical company Zydus Cadila is the other using this method. The consortium’s vaccine would house a single SARS-CoV-2 protein within the existing measles vaccine as a way to trigger an effective immune response. This type of recombinant vaccine would allow for antigens to be applied to directly the part of the immune system that can induce production of white blood cells, which can remember the pathogen long after exposure, prompting long-lasting immunity. As vaccine producers around the world are already equipped to manufacture the measles vaccine, this approach would bode well for fast deployment. A similar method was also used to develop vaccine candidates against SARS, Chikungunya, MERS and Lassa fever—work also done by the Pasteur Institute and Themis.

Despite the unprecedented exertion to get an effective vaccine against COVID-19, one isn’t anticipated to be ready until 2021 as extensive safety testing and clinical trials are necessary. Inadequately tested vaccines pose the risk of triggering lethal immune responses in recipients, and even approved vaccines such as the one against yellow fever can cause deadly organ failure in a small percentage of people.