In November 2023 CEPI and the University of Oxford announced a new project to “initiate the early development of prototype vaccines” against the Junín virus. This has been selected as an “exemplar” of the Arenavirus family, with the hope that the resources generated through the project can “give the world a head start” in the development of vaccines against Arenaviruses within 100 days of their identification.
Junín virus is the “causative agent” of Argentine Haemorrhagic Fever, with symptoms ranging from muscular pain and dizziness to rashes. It has a 15%-30% case fatality. CEPI describes it as “endemic to the Pampas of South America”, the fertile lowlands that span over a million square kilometres.
The virus is a member of the Arenaviridae family, “generally spread by rodents”. The family was first identified with the discovery of Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), isolated in 1933 during a study. Of the 15 arenaviruses that are known to infect animals, 5 cause disease in humans, including Junín virus. Lassa fever is also a member of the family, one of CEPI’s priority pathogens and on WHO’s R&D Blueprint list.
Oxford’s vaccine efforts
CEPI states that the team in Oxford was “able to develop a COVID-19 vaccine with unprecedented speed” partly thanks to their prior research into MERS, a “closely related virus” in the coronavirus family.
“This gave the team a significant head start when COVID-19 emerged because they had solved many of the critical vaccinology problems for coronaviruses in advance.”
In this project, CEPI and Oxford aim to “replicate this approach” for the Arenavirus family by “generating crucial knowledge about vaccine design and biological mechanisms linked to protection”. CEPI will provide up to $25 million for preclinical and Phase I clinical development using the ChAdOx platform, which was the foundation for the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, and other rapid response platforms.
Responding to a wakeup call
Dr Richard Hatchett, CEPI’s CEO, reflected that COVID-19 was a “wake-up call to the world” and highlighted the “critical need to be better prepared for future viral threats”.
“This new project will harness the University of Oxford’s extensive vaccinology experience and its innovative ChAdOx vaccine technology – one of only a handful of vaccine platforms proven to work at speed, scale, and low cost – to expand the world’ scientific knowledge on Arenavirus vaccines.”
Dr Hatchett intends the project to generate “vital resources” for the “proposed Global Vaccine Library”. Oxford’s Professor Teresa Lambe commented that the project will unite scientists in Oxford and Latin America, working with “both viral vector and mRNA technology”.
“Our work will not only inform best-in-class vaccines against the Junín virus, but it will also support vaccine development for the broader group…It is this wider impact that could crucially help the world develop and manufacture safe, affordable vaccines at speed.”
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