How UK research could hold the key to taming Monkeypox

As the country wrapped up for the Bank Holiday long weekend, Professor Jonathan Heeney juggled a mountain of work at Cambridge. “The thing is, what we’re doing is really timely,” he says.

For years, Heeney and his team at biotech company DIOSynVax worked to create a vaccine suitable for three infectious viruses – ebola, lassa and marburg. But as cases of monkeypox began to spread around the world, the virus on which DIOSynVax and Cambridge University researchers had based their bite drew attention.

“Just as Oxford chose to use a chimpanzee adenovirus for its Covid vaccine, we chose a weakened smallpox vaccine to carry the payload of all these haemorrhagic fever viruses. And so we couldn’t just vaccinate against lassa, ebola and marburg, but also, fortuitously, monkeypox,” says Professor Heeney.

With the spread of positive cases of monkeypox around the world, attention is turning to the approach countries should take – and the role of vaccines. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that Europe is now at “the epicenter of the largest and most geographically widespread outbreak of monkeypox ever reported outside endemic areas of West Africa and central”.

Yet so far, he adds, “monkeypox has not been at the forefront of infectious disease research and development.” Britain has bought more than 20,000 doses of a smallpox vaccine in the race to secure supplies to inoculate those at risk.

In the background, however, work is being done in Britain on research that insiders say may hold the key to eradicating these viruses completely.

Last Monday, officials from InnovateUK were on the phone with Heeney. The government’s funding arm recently gave their project a further £500,000 to expand their vaccine project to protect against four fevers plus monkeypox, on top of a previous grant of £2.3million.

“We want to do this as quickly as possible,” Heeney says. “We want to get our vaccine to countries where monkeypox is a real problem.”

The potential of DIOSynVax, he says, is significant – not just for monkeypox but also for other viruses. His vaccine work was recently expanded to see if the vaccine could be used for a fourth virus – Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.

“We would just have to make one vaccine for all these viruses and vaccinate people with it once or twice, rather than having to keep running different campaigns. It would be cheaper and, quite simply, more effective.

Some within the scientific community are skeptical. Clive Dix, the former chairman of Britain’s Vaccine Task Force, says the chances of success in making a virus to attack three or four different things seem “very slim”.

“The development issues are dreadful because if you have a vaccine you have to show it works and get it approved. Well, you have to show that it works against all the things you’re trying to get approval for. It has to be large-scale trials, so by doing this multiple times, you’re talking about 20-year development plans.

The issue of funding is central. Heeney may be optimistic that the rise in monkeypox cases could help his company secure more funding, but not everyone is convinced.

“Current smallpox vaccines are something like 85% effective against monkeypox,” says Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia. “It’s damn good. We could spend a lot of time and effort and money, and in two years we’ll have a specific monkeypox vaccine, and it’s no better than what we have now.

While DIOSynVax’s jab is intended to help multiple viruses, experts say funding vaccine development in any form remains a major issue.

“A key question is where is the attraction at the other end of the market?” says Professor Andrew Pollard, of the Oxford Vaccine Group. “There is a question about the incentive for a commercial manufacturer to manufacture a vaccine if it will not be used.

“Obviously, from a pandemic preparedness perspective, we have to figure out how to make vaccines for these diseases, because we might need them in the future, like for Covid. But there is always a practical financial model problem. Who funds this?

Yet there are pockets of scientific progress in Britain that could make a major difference in eradicating diseases such as monkeypox, even without huge investment and long periods of development.

About Margie Peters

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