Flanders Vaccine’s COVID-19 Webinar series communication

Press Release – July 2020

On 18th and 25th of June, Flanders Vaccine, under the chairmanship of UGent IOF Business Developer Sven Arnouts, organised two webinars on the challenges in the race for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine or treatment. How can we shorten the long road to a vaccine or treatment without compromising safety? What are the relevant animal models in pre-clinical research, and which role can controlled human infection models (CHIMs) play in this process? Which progress have Belgian researchers and companies, all Flanders Vaccine members, made developing vaccines and treatments? For an overview of the most important insights of the two webinars, read the following summary.

UGent professor Hans Nauwynck kicked off the first session with an overview of the coronavirus family and the animal species—including humans—that are infected by each of its members. He discussed the similarities and differences between the ways in which animal coronaviruses (swine, cat, avian) and SARS-CoV-2 infect their hosts and set off an immune response. As a veterinary virologist, Professor Nauwynck is currently conducting tests on animals, more specifically cats.

Professor Johan Neyts of the Rega Institute, KULeuven elaborated on the research efforts to find the ideal animal model to test SARS-CoV-2 treatments and vaccines, more specifically the robust SARS-CoV-2 hamster model. Deciding on the right animal model will clearly be one of the most important success factors in the development of a vaccine or treatment.

Professor Pierre Van Damme of the University of Antwerp discussed whether controlled human infection model studies could be used for the development of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. According to Prof. Van Damme, controlled human infection models can make significant contributions to clinical research but as long as no treatment is available, using CHIMs remains ethically hard to defend.

To end, Dr. Christian Lenz of Pfizer and Dr. Johan Van Hoof of Janssen Vaccines reported on their progress towards a suitable SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Janssen Vaccines has fast-tracked the start of the phase-1 clinical study of their SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Originally set to September, the study is now expected to start in the second half of July. The company is also collaborating with the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases aiming at initiating phase-3 clinical studies while still waiting for the outcome of phase-1 studies.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine-development programme comprises four candidates, each representing a different combination of mRNA format and target antigen. Thanks to the study’s innovative design, the different candidates for an mRNA vaccine can be evaluated simultaneously, making it possible to identify the safest and potentially most effective vaccine. The vaccine candidate can then be tested with a larger number of volunteers.

Janssen Vaccines and Pfizer confirmed that while they are waiting for a successful clinical development programme, they will already upscaling their production for the global market. ‘Our goal is to ensure we can deliver a vaccine to the world and protect people everywhere against this pandemic’, says Johan Van Hoof.

The focus of the second webinar shifted from pre-clinical and clinical studies to the prevention and treatment of SARS-CoV-2. The first speaker was Wim Tiest of eTheRNA immunotherapies, a biotech company that has teamed up with North American and European partners to gain access to instruments for developing a new mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. The proposed vaccine is meant to be administered intranasally, i.e. as a kind of nasal spray. It is designed to protect against future variants of the virus by targeting conserved epitopes from the entire SARS-CoV-2 genome. Clinical studies are set to start in early 2021.

Next, VIB-UGent professor Xavier Saelens discussed the identification of an antibody capable of preventing a SARS-CoV-2 from binding with human cells, thus preventing infection. New results obtained by different teams from the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin (US) and the German Primate Center (Göttingen, Germany) show that the antibody can deactivate a variant of the virus in laboratory conditions and may thus be able to offer protection against the coronavirus. This is an important progress for our research. However, it must be noted that the development of this antibody still has to go through several phases. ‘We are conducting tests on SARS-CoV-2 itself. For now things are going well: we have found that SARS-CoV-2 itself too is neutralised by this antibody. Our priority now is to perform a first in vivo test of the antibody’s antiviral potential, i.e. to test it on animals. At the same time we have to fine-tune the production of our antibody. When these two components are running smoothly, we will be able to move on to clinical trials. But even accelerating procedures considerably, I don’t see this happening before the end of this year’, says Xavier Saelens.

Professor Bart Lambrecht of VIB/UZ Gent described his research for a possible treatment for SARS-CoV-2. His team is focusing on Leukine®, a drug approved in the US in 1991 that has five clinical indications. The current pandemic has put it on the radar of research centres and experts because of its possible effect on the lung function of corona patients. A certain type of lung cell, alveolar macrophages, can only grow and function optimally in the presence of a growth factor known as GM-CSF. This growth factor plays a crucial role in fending off viruses and promoting a properly functioning immune system. Animal studies have shown that GM-CSF lowers the mortality rate in viral pneumonias. Leukine® is a yeast-derived version of GM-CSF developed by Partner Therapeutics. ‘Patients with SARS-COV-2 who develop acute respiratory problems have very limited treatment options and an increased risk of death’, says Professor Bart Lambrecht, head of the study at Ghent University Hospital and the VIB-UGent Inflammation Research Center. ‘We got this Leukine® study started quickly because GM-CSF has profound effects on antivirus protection, supports the immune system, and can stimulate the mechanisms for repairing damaged lung tissues.’

Last to speak was Dr. Jamila Louahed of GSK, who described the current situation of its adjuvant programme and how it strengthens their current research into possible vaccines. ‘We’re collaborating with companies and research groups from all over the world, developing promising candidates for a SARS-COV-2 vaccine by using our innovative vaccine-adjuvant technology. Using an adjuvant is particularly important in a pandemic because it can lower the amount of antigens needed, which enables more vaccine doses to be produced and enhances immunogenicity in older adult subjects, thus contributing to more people being protected.’

In short, four hours that provided a broad overview of the current situation pertaining to Belgian SARS-CoV-2 research. ‘With these webinars we discovered a valuable new tool to inform our members and the broader vaccine-community about new evolutions and innovations in the field of vaccine development. The contributions by the different presenters demonstrated how they were able to respond with high-level research to the many challenges we face in the race to control SARS-CoV-2.

The webinars showed how joint efforts between academia, companies and regulatory authorities maximize our chances to have vaccines and treatments against SARS-CoV-2 in the short term,’ according to Ghent University Business Developer Sven Arnouts, chairman of Flanders Vaccine. 


Sven Arnouts, Chairman Flanders Vaccine