Sabin Institute acquires rights to develop vaccines for Ebola and Marburg viruses

Helen Branswell

The nonprofit Sabin Vaccine Institute is taking over development of vaccines to protect against two species of Ebola and a related virus, Marburg, acquiring the rights from GSK, the two entities announced Tuesday.

The transfer of the rights for the vaccines will put back into development a vaccine that GSK had shelved after the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016. No money is changing hands; GSK is giving the rights to the institute.

The institute will develop the vaccines in collaboration with the National Institute of Health’s Vaccine Research Center. Scientists from the VRC originally designed the vaccines, which all use the same approach to inducing immunity.

“We really feel that this is a very good opportunity for this vaccine because NIH and Sabin have essentially … the resources and the competency to do this,” said Dr. Thomas Breuer, chief medical officer for GSK Vaccines.

Read more: WHO, preparing for the worst, makes plans for reduced doses of Ebola vaccine

“GSK … really invested heavily from a financial point of view but also a resourcing point of view in this vaccine. And now seeing another NGO, together with the NIH, willing to take this up, we are very proud that the work we have done is now taken forward,” he said. “We believe it’s a really good vaccine.”

The agreement covers three experimental vaccines designed to protect against Marburg virus, Ebola Sudan, and Ebola Zaire, the virus responsible for the now yearlong epidemic ongoing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ebola Zaire has caused the most outbreaks, followed by Ebola Sudan; the two are the most deadly of the six known species of Ebola.

The vaccines have not been tested in Phase 3 trials, which would show whether they actually protect against infection. But a Phase 2 trial conducted near the end of the West African outbreak showed the Ebola Zaire vaccine induced an antibody response in most recipients and that the antibodies appeared to last at least a year.

The plan is to develop the three as monovalents, or individual vaccines, said Amy Finan, the institute’s CEO, who noted the path to licensure for monovalents would be more straightforward than a combined shot. The vaccines were designed to be used to control Ebola and Marburg outbreaks, given in a single dose.

Finan wouldn’t estimate how much the institute believes it will cost to develop the vaccines, saying only it is has some seed money for the project and is looking for funding assistance.

There are currently several other Ebola Zaire vaccines in development, and three have been licensed in Russia and China without human efficacy data. Though it is still unlicensed, Merck’s Ebola Zaire vaccine is being used to try to contain the current outbreak in DRC. Plans are in the works to try to introduce a second, made by Johnson & Johnson, though the DRC government has not yet approved the plan. The J&J product is a two-dose vaccine.

Other companies have been working on Ebola Sudan and Marburg vaccines; some of that work involves developing combination vaccines to protect against the three viruses. But development of vaccines to protect against Ebola Sudan and Marburg is not as advanced as the work on Ebola Zaire vaccines.

Despite the fact that it appears likely both the Merck and the J&J Ebola Zaire vaccines will be licensed and that the market for Ebola vaccines is tiny, Finan said the Sabin Vaccine Institute thinks advancing another is a wise move.

“We think it’s prudent to have different vaccines and multiple manufacturing sources to enable multiple stockpiles,” she said.

“Sabin’s strategy is to focus on advancing vaccine candidates that have demonstrated early scientific and preferably clinical value but have little commercial value in targeting diseases that primarily impact the world’s most vulnerable populations,” Finan said. “When you look at those parameters, this program definitely fits that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Finan’s surname.