The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, CEPI, has launched a new Call for Proposals to improve the thermostability of vaccines against known epidemic and pandemic diseases—like Ebola, Lassa fever, MERS, as well as COVID-19—or a novel Disease X. The aim of the Call is to minimise the need for complex cold-chain requirements in order to improve global access to vaccines and, in turn, reduce potential vaccine wastage.
CEPI is particularly interested in hearing from vaccine developers and tech companies with new or existing innovations that could support the development of one or more infectious disease vaccines that are both heat-stable and freeze-stable. Example innovations that CEPI may look to fund include temperature-stable vaccine nasal sprays, microarray patches, or orally administered vaccines.
Technologies must be applicable to current or future vaccines and accessible to low- and middle-income countries, and the innovation should not affect other key vaccine criteria such as costs, capacity, and ease of use.
Up to $17.5 million will be made available to support the innovations, with the aim to fund 3 to 5 projects in 2022. This work is part of CEPI’s goal, as part of its $3.5bn pandemic preparedness plan, launched in March 2021, to harness innovative technologies to improve the speed, scale and access of vaccine development and manufacturing in response to epidemics and pandemics. The Call may be extended to include other innovation areas that contribute to this goal.
Interested groups could either apply individually or, for example if an independent tech institution, pair together with a vaccine manufacturer and apply as a consortium.
The need for thermostable vaccines
Vaccines are biological products which can lose their effectiveness when exposed to temperatures that are either too hot or too cold. Therefore, cold-chains—involving fridges, freezers, cool boxes for shipping, and other equipment—are used to enable vaccines to be kept at a particular temperature during shipment, storage, and delivery.
While advantageous for maintaining vaccine potency, such temperature requirements can make vaccines inaccessible to remote areas or low-resource settings lacking the infrastructure and technologies needed to store and distribute these vaccines at certain temperatures. This is true for the rollout of some of the currently approved COVID-19 vaccines, including Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine technologies requiring ultra-cold temperatures of -20 °C to -80 °C.
Cold chain requirements are also one of the key reasons for vaccines being wasted globally, as vaccines end up discarded after they have potentially been exposed to heat or freezing.
The ability for vaccines to withstand heat exposure has therefore been identified as the most desired characteristic for vaccines used in outreach and campaign settings by experienced immunisation staff. Thermostable vaccines are also identified as a preferred vaccine characteristic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Call seeks to enable vaccine platforms that currently require freezing, like the RNA vaccine platforms being used in the COVID-19 response, to instead work at the already established cold chain (requiring refrigeration at 2-8°C). CEPI will also support innovations that aim to improve thermostability for any vaccine type to a preferred target of 40°C that allows the last stage of the supply chain to occur without cold chain equipment.
A full list of the epidemic and pandemic pathogens applicants could target is available online.
The new Call is now open for Expressions of Interest up until 31 December 2022. Successful applications may then be invited to submit full proposals for funding.
Further details and information on how to apply are available on the CEPI website.