GSK exits Ebola vaccine R&D as J&J rival starts Uganda trial

GlaxoSmithKline has licensed vaccines for Ebola to the US Sabin Vaccine Institute, just as a major trial of another candidate from Johnson & Johnson has started a large-scale trial in Uganda.

GSK is handing over rights to three vaccines – two for Ebola strains and one for the related but lesser known Marburg virus – as Ebola is hitting the headlines once again with more than 1,800 fatalities reported in the latest outbreak of the so-called Zaire strain of the virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

An experimental Merck & Co/MSD vaccine called V920 – licensed from NewLink Genetics – is already being deployed in DRC in the hope of containing the year-long outbreak, and has been given to around 180,000 people to date. There are concerns however that infection could spread to other countries, including neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.

Sabin is getting an exclusive license to all three vaccines – which are based on GSK’s ChAd3 platform – for free, and the ongoing cost of development will be supported by US National Institutes of Health (NIH). One of the candidates has already been tested in a phase 2 trial.

The NIH worked on the development of the three vaccines with Okairos, a biotech that was acquired by GSK in 2013.

Divesting the programmes means that development of the vaccines can be restarted, according to GSK. It was placed on hold after the last major Ebola outbreak in 2014-16 came to an end, mainly because the number of cases declined rapidly and it was no longer feasible to run phase 3 tests.

Meanwhile, the divestment also means GSK can concentrate on other projects as it continues a major restructuring of its R&D operations under Hal Barron.  The three vaccines have been administered to more than 5,000 adults and 600 children, in 13 different clinical trials to date, according to the company.

“Sabin plans to continue the development and seek regulatory approval of Ebola and Marburg vaccines with our shared goal of making them available to the millions of people potentially at risk,” said the Institute’s chief executive Amy Finan.

The move comes as a two-shot vaccination based on Ad26.ZEBOV from J&J’s Janssen unit and MVA-BN-Filo from Bavarian Nordic – also intended to protect against the Zaire strain as well as the Sudan strain and Marbug – has started a trial in Uganda.

The two-year study will involve up to 800 people, according to a Reuters report. Trials of the J&J/Bavarian Nordic vaccine were also placed on hold because of the dwindling number of Ebola cases as the last major outbreak petered away.

Uganda has had several Ebola outbreaks in the past but it’s currently free of the disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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