Steady wins the race? EpiVax’s vaccine hopeful

Photo: File photo by Scott Kingsley – Dr. Annie De Groot, CEO and CSO of EpiVax, one of Rhode Island’s pioneering biotech firms, who is pursuing the development of a COVID-19 vaccine

By Richard Asinof,

A vaccine being developed by EpiVax may not be the first to reach the market, but because of its smarter design, it may prove to be safer, more effective, and offer better long-term protection from the virus.

It was a hectic Friday morning on Sept. 25 in the virtual world of Zoom meetings and gatherings we currently co-exist in. GrowSmart RI held a virtual plenary session of its postponed Power of Place Summit, which had originally been scheduled for March 27, focused on adapting new place-based strategies to address the urgencies caused by COVID-19 pandemic.

Also competing for attention on Zoom on Friday was a virtual session entitled “Words matter,” focused on stigma, co-sponsored by RICARES and the City of Providence. The conversation was an attempt to engage with the news media to urge them to follow Associated Press guidelines when reporting on the overdose epidemic.

But perhaps the most far-reaching, informative session on Zoom on Friday morning was a webinar offered by EpiVax, providing an update on its COVID-19 vaccine development efforts. The company, one of Rhode Island’s pioneer biotech firms launched 22 years ago, has now pivoted many of its resources to work on manufacturing a T-cell, epitope-driven vaccine, with the goal of initially targeting the vaccine to protect front-line health care workers as the first priority.

The webinar featured: Dr. Annie De Groot, the co-founder of EpiVax, its CSO and CEO; Lauren Meyers, Ph.D.; and Michael Princiotta, vice president of research at Epivax Oncology, a spinoff company launched by EpiVax a few years ago.

The work being undertaken by EpiVax to develop a vaccine to arrest the spread of the coronavirus is, in many ways, the culmination of 22 years of research and development of the firm’s immuno-informatic tools. “Our experience has been developing and designing vaccines for more than 20 years,” De Groot said, when introducing the webinar.

To push forward with that initiative, EpiVax plans to raise $3 million to move the vaccine into human clinical trials, with goal of closing on the fund-raising effort by the end of October, according to De Groot.

As part of the webinar, EpiVax announced that it has entered into the manufacturing phase of the new vaccine, based upon processes already approved by the FDA.

The final vaccine product will involve mixing the peptide combination with an adjuvant at the time of administration, which is pretty much a standard operating procedure widely established in the clinic, according to Princiotta.

Under the radar screen
There have been oodles of news stories focused on the rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which has attracted most of the top biotech and big pharma companies to push the limits of science and safety, with political prodding from President Donald Trump to have such a vaccine ready by Election Day on Nov. 3.

Whether the companies can meet such a deadline – and whether the vaccine can meet the strenuous safety guidelines for vaccines – are still unanswered questions, despite the willingness of the U.S. government to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to finance the efforts known as “Operation Warp Speed.”

Beyond the safety and efficacy questions about the vaccine – as well as logistical questions about how to roll out a vaccine across the U.S. and around the world, particularly if the vaccine needs to be kept in storage at very low temperatures, there are also substantial questions about the approach being taken by many of the companies involved that are leading the charge.

Much of the focus has been on developing vaccines to create antibodies to respond to the virus. But, given the novel nature of the virus, scientists do not know how effective such a vaccine will be in the long-term, and how many doses will be required over what period of time. The normal trial-and-error process in vaccine development has been shortened, spurred on by political pressure being put on the FDA.

De Groot and her team at EpiVax have been taking a different approach. Their vaccine may not be the first to reach the marketplace, but it may turn out to be the safest, most effective vaccine in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

EpiVax’s approach has been to pursue a different path, creating a vaccine, focused on peptides, in order to build up “an army of T-cells” ready to respond to COVID-19, ready to educate one’s body to respond when exposed to the infection, as De Groot explained the concept during the webinar.

The peptides that are the focus of EpiVax’s vaccine development have been identified through the firm’s proprietary immuno-informatic technology, based on the protein structure of the virus. Stay tuned.

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Richard Asinof

Richard Asinof is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online subscription newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island.