Race for a COVID-19 vaccine: Singapore joins the line-up
Collaborations with international vaccine groups and companies have helped Singapore land a spot in the global race for a COVID-19 vaccine.
One such vaccine will be the result of combining the STARR Technology™ from US-based Arcturus Therapeutics and a platform developed at Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS). The STARR Technology™ platform is a combination of self-replicating RNA and a nanoparticle non-viral delivery system known as LUNAR®. This combination results in protein production in the body. STARR Technology™ also has superior immune response and sustained protein expression which allows for a vaccine response at a much lower dose than that achieved with traditional mRNA vaccines. [https://www.duke-nus.edu.sg/about/media/media-releases/media-releases/arcturus-dukenus-covid-19-vaccine-using-starr-technology, accessed 22 July 2020]
“We have observed STARR Technology™ in preclinical models to be effective at extraordinarily low doses – greater than 30-fold more efficient than traditional mRNA. If successful, Arcturus could develop a vaccine capable of vaccinating millions of people for a fraction of the cost of traditional mRNA vaccines,” said Joseph Payne, President & CEO of Arcturus Therapeutics.
“There is a tremendous urgency to develop an effective prevention for the current coronavirus crisis. The Duke-NUS and Arcturus partnership could expedite a solution to this urgent need as we utilize STARR Technology™ to bring a vaccine candidate for clinical testing in the shortest time possible,” said Professor Ooi Eng Eong, Deputy Director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases programme at Duke-NUS.
“Duke-NUS has been on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, developing the first serological tests for COVID-19 and was among the first groups to isolate and culture the virus. The partnership with Arcturus Therapeutics combines complementary strengths as we work together to fight this global outbreak,” added Professor Thomas M. Coffman, Dean of Duke-NUS Medical School.
On 21 July 2020, the Singapore Health Sciences Authority (HSA) cleared the way to initiate human trials of this vaccine candidate (LUNAR-COV19). The safety, tolerability, and extent and duration of humoral and cellular immune response of several different doses of the LUNAR-COV19 vaccine will be assessed in up to 108 healthy adults (including older adults). [https://www.duke-nus.edu.sg/about/media/media-releases/media-releases/arcturus-therapeutics-duke-nus-clinical-trials-for-covid-19-vaccine-candidate-approved-to-proceed, accessed 23 July 2020]
“Preclinical studies on LUNAR-COV19 have shown very promising findings, including the possibility that a single dose of this vaccine may be sufficient to trigger robust and durable immune responses against SARS-CoV-2. We are very eager to start the first-in-human clinical trial here in Singapore and advance LUNAR-COV19 on its journey to becoming a potential commercial vaccine,” stated Ooi.
“Based on our preclinical data, we believe that our self-replicating mRNA-based approach may produce high rates of seroconversion and robust T-cell induction with a potential single administration, at very low doses. The LUNAR-COV19 profile is meaningfully differentiated and may facilitate the mass vaccine campaigns necessary to target hundreds of millions of individuals globally,” added Payne.
Another collaboration to develop a COVID-19 vaccine is between Esco Aster, a local contract development and manufacturing organization, and US-based biotechnology company Vivaldi Biosciences. [https://www.edb.gov.sg/en/news-and-events/insights/innovation/singapore-researchers-in-global-search-for-covid-19-vaccines.html, accessed 22 July 2020]
This vaccine will combine antigens from the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a protein backbone from the influenza virus. Esco Aster is in the process of identifying the correct antigen sequence and increasing production of the protein backbone, while Vivaldi Biosciences is working on the process to connect the two components. [https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/team-developing-vaccine-that-can-tackle-virus-mutations-as-well, accessed 22 July 2020]
In the case of SARS-CoV-2 virus mutation, substituting the antigens of the current virus with that of the mutated strain, will enable a new vaccine to be produced within weeks.
A site for vaccine trials
Another way Singapore is playing a part in the global vaccine search is by volunteering to be a vaccine trial site. This is evident in the partnership between Duke-NUS and the Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
“If any vaccine is ready for human trials, the doctor-scientist team across SingHealth and Duke-NUS is experienced in similar type of trials … we’re trying to convince CEPI to select Singapore as one of the trial sites,” noted Professor Wang Linfa, Director of the Duke-NUS Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme. [https://news.nus.edu.sg/research/nus-scientists-work-covid-19-vaccine-trial-and-rapid-test-kits, accessed 22 July 2020]
In this trial, healthy volunteers will be vaccinated, and the potential immune protection conferred by the vaccine and vaccine side effects will be monitored.
Singapore has also registered as a trial site for the Solidarity vaccine trial which is spearheaded by the World Health Organization. [https://www.moh.gov.sg/news-highlights/details/collaboration-with-global-scientific-community-for-covid-19-vaccine/, accessed 23 July 2020]