Cambridge start-up searches for next Covid jab in animal faeces

DIOSynVax, a UK start-up founded by a vet-turned-vaccinologist, is hoping genetic sequences of viruses discovered in animal faeces will give vital clues for creating a vaccine to help prevent future pandemics.

The Cambridge university spinout is working on two vaccines that it believes will outlive the current crop of Covid-19 jabs, including the one created by researchers at rival Oxford university.

Jonathan Heeney, who first became interested in coronaviruses when he diagnosed them in cats and cheetahs during his studies, said scientists were learning about future threats from the guano-covered floors of bat caves and waste from other animals including civet cats and pangolins.

“By looking at animals, we’re better able to protect ourselves from the next pandemic or the next virus that is likely to cause a disease,” he said.

He said DIOSynVax uses the genomic sequences of coronaviruses in all species to identify their “Achilles heel”. The scientists use computational biology tools to locate regions of the virus that cannot change without it killing itself.

Instead of the current strategy of developing vaccines once the new pathogen is discovered in a human outbreak, the company can target these Achilles heels, which will still be present in future outbreaks.

“If you look at humans, you are looking at a herd of horses that have already escaped the barn,” he said. “In animals, we have a better chance of seeing what’s likely to jump over the fence to build a vaccine.” 

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations has invested up to $42mn in DIOSynVax, as one of several teams it is backing in a quest for a vaccine that could beat future variants of Sars-Cov-2, and any future virus in the family of Sars and Mers, known as betacoronaviruses. Other funding recipients include Japan’s NEC corporation and an Indian government-backed consortium.

CEPI, which was one of the partners behind Covax, is raising billions of dollars to fund its plan to cut the time from the discovery of a potential pandemic pathogen to an effective vaccination down to just 100 days.

DIOSynVax plans to use mRNA technology to develop the vaccine after its success for BioNTech, Pfizer and Moderna. It is partnering German biotech Ethris to manufacture the vaccine.

The company already has a Covid-19 vaccine in an early stage clinical trial, which it believes will be better at tackling variants than the vaccines based on the variant discovered in Wuhan in late 2019. Heeney said it protected against Sars-Cov-2 and “all the cousins”, including variants and the original Sars virus.

But delays in raising money meant it only started its phase 1 trial late last year. Innovate UK gave the researchers £1.9mn in late summer 2020, which Heeney said was a “drop in the bucket” compared to the funding researchers at Oxford and Imperial received.

“It took a long time to get it funded because everybody wanted speed,” he said. Now that the UK has vaccines, Heeney added that the government was not as motivated to fund later stage trials.

Heeney said CEPI was filling a “real critical niche” in thinking ahead to future pandemics, while national governments focus on other problems, from war to climate change. With the funding, DIOSynVax is starting a “big adventure” so “we don’t find ourselves with this problem in five or 10 years from now”.