J&J to accelerate Ebola vaccine, open to collaboration with rivals

Johnson & Johnson is to spend $200 million on accelerating development of a new vaccine against the deadly Ebola epidemic.

The company’s vaccine is one of several currently in development aimed at preventing the further spread of the disease, which has infected around 10,000 people in West Africa, and killing around 4,800 so far.

The company’s specialist vaccines division Crucell based in the Netherlands is working with Denmark’s Bavarian Nordic on a 2-in-1 combination vaccine against Ebola.

The first doses of the vaccine could be ready for initial testing in early 2015, with the company expecting to produce up to one million doses by the end of next year.

J&J is just one of the firms who have answered the call from The World Health Organization, which has brought together the lead players together as the epidemic has deepened, with isolated cases reaching Europe and the US.

Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson and worldwide chairman, Pharmaceuticals told journalists this morning that his company’s board has rapidly approved the $200 million, and said long-term commercial viability of the product was not a consideration.

“We are aiming to put all our resources at the disposal of world leaders, and say ‘Let’s go’,” he said.

Asked whether the vaccine would arrive in time to have an impact on the epidemic, which is still spreading in some West African countries, Stoffels said: “Predicting now whether this will have an effect on the epidemic is difficult. We hope by then [mid 2015] that the epidemic will be over, but I don’t think so. It will be going on for a long time.”

J&J’s vaccine regimen was discovered in a collaboration with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), and combines a Janssen preventative vaccine with a vaccine from Bavarian Nordic.

It consists of two components based on AdVac technology from Crucell and the MVA-BN technology from Bavarian Nordic.

J&J has invested a further $43 million in Bavarian Nordic shares, giving it a single digit share of the company, and providing the Danish company a cash boost to fund the research.

The combination vaccine regimen has shown promising results in pre-clinical studies – providing 100% protection in a study in primates – in contrast to separate injections, which left some animals still exposed to the virus.

The combination is now planned to be tested for safety and immunogenicity in healthy volunteers in Europe, the US and Africa starting in early January. Janssen is targeting production of more than one million doses of the vaccine regimen in 2015, 250,000 of which are expected to be released for broad application in clinical trials by May 2015.

Stoffels points out that Crucell has been working on an Ebola vaccine for around 10 years, and is part of a long-term commitment of the company to diseases of the developing world, including multi-drug resistant TB.

Open to collaboration

There are a total of five companies working on Ebola vaccines. Notable among these is Okairos AG, being developed by the US NIH in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline, and is based on a modified chimpanzee-cold virus and an Ebola protein.

Another vaccine is being developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and known as VSV-EBOV. This is currently being tested on healthy volunteers in the US.

Stoffels said he had been in regular communication with GSK’s chief executive Andrew Witty in the past few days, exchanging information and discussing possible collaborations to fight Ebola.

Asked whether J&J would be willing to abandon its vaccine and work with a rival company if another vaccine turned out to be the most effective, he confirmed that such an alliance could go ahead. “It might even be that we combine their vaccine with ours.”

“The pharmaceutical industry is working together here,” he said, stressing the need for speed in terms of J&J’s investment: “We need to go fast, and we need to go totally ‘at risk’.”

He added that J&J would look for partners with spare vaccine production capacity, to help make the preventative drug even more widely available.

Meanwhile, a number of drugs aimed at treating patients already infected are also being fast-tracked. Tekmira has announced that it has begun limited manufacturing of a therapeutic product targeting the Ebola-Guinea virus.

Stoffels has a very personal interest in finding an effective vaccine to fight Ebola – his initial medical training was an infectious disease doctor, specialising in HIV/AIDS, an even greater scourge in sub-Saharan Africa. He spent time worked in a hospital in Kikwit, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was subsequently at the centre of the 1995 outbreak of Ebola.

“I saw many of my colleagues who worked there die,” he said. He pointed to optimistic signs in other diseases. The company’s long-term efforts against another of Africa’s biggest killers, multi-drug resistance TB, has produced a new drug called Sirturoa (bedaquiline), which is set for launch next year.

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