Investigators at Imperial College London secured a £10m ($13m) grant from the UK Department of Health to fund the work last year and have brought in external support to execute the strategy.
CPI, a UK non-profit, is joining with GSK Vaccines Institute for Global Health, several universities and global vaccine manufacturing networks to support the Imperial researchers.
The breadth and depth of expertise gathered for the project reflects the scale of its ambitions. After decades in which vaccine production innovations have mostly been incremental, the collaborators want to drive two breakthrough advances that would redefine global public health programs.
One goal is to cut the time it takes to manufacture vaccines so the global community can respond faster to outbreaks such as the Ebola and Zika viruses. That strand will focus on developing a flexible modular production system capable of manufacturing 10,000 doses within weeks of the sequencing of a rising threat to public health.
Equipped with such a system, public health officials could orchestrate local containment strategies to stop a virus from spreading far beyond the original source of an outbreak.
The second strand of the initiative aims to ensure the vaccines are still safe and effective by the time they are administered. Today, the instability of many vaccines at high temperatures means this is only possible when end-to-end cold chain logistics systems are in place.
CPI and its collaborators want to end the need to keep vaccines at low temperatures. Achieving that goal would enable vaccine distribution networks to extend into rural areas of low and middle-income countries, where 24m children a year currently lack access to prophylactic protection against viruses.
Meeting the challenge
The public health benefits of progress against either objective would be significant, but so are the technical challenges. Vaccine production times and instability are persistent problems for a reason.
There are reasons to think we may now have the means to overcome the challenges, though. For example, work on synthetic RNA vaccines has laid the groundwork for faster production tines.
The Imperial researchers see RNA vaccines offering significantly shorter lag phases than products that rely on viral vectors and mammalian cell culture. Coupled with low infrastructure and equipment costs, this could make it feasible to set up production sites in low-income countries in response to outbreaks, ending the need to maintain stockpiles.
Similarly, work on protein stabilization has created enzymes that can tolerate temperatures north of 100⁰C. Such technology could remove some or all of the cold chain, either by being used to reformulate vaccines for last-mile transit or incorporated into initial production.