April 1, 2021

The UK startup developing a variant-proof coronavirus vaccine

London-based Baseimmune raises £685k to start testing the concept.

Maija Palmer

4 min read

Photo by Ivan Diaz on Unsplash

As ambitions go, it’s a big one. Josh Blight, cofounder and chief scientific officer of Baseimmune, wants to not just find a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that been sweeping through the world since last spring, but a vaccine that would give us immunity against all future coronaviruses.

As the world races to vaccinate people against Covid-19 (the disease) faster than the virus can evolve new resistant strains, this feels like the answer we’ve been looking for. But can a young, three-person startup from the UK really deliver the holy grail of immunity?

It all comes down to using a combination of data and machine learning to predict the way that a virus is likely to evolve. Baseimmune looks at hundreds of different potential variants — changes, for example, to the spike protein, but also changes to other parts of the virus — and picks out from these the ones that are most likely to cause problems. A vaccine can then be developed that protects against all these future changes.

In January 2020...we predicted the key variants that would emerge, like the South African one.

“In January 2020, even when there was just a small amount of data available about the Covid-19 virus, we predicted the key variants that would emerge, like the South African one,” Blight told Sifted. These variants did not emerge until more than a year later, but the algorithmic model picked them up in advance, he said.

There are a number of teams of scientists looking to develop Covid-19 vaccines that would provide broader protection against different variants, including a project involving researchers at Nottingham Trent University and immunology company Scancell. But many of these appear to be focused on just two parts of the virus, rather than scanning for hundreds of factors.

The London-based Baseimmune has just raised a first £685k round of investment led by Creator Fund, the pan-European university VC fund, and including Mike Watson, ex-president of Moderna's infectious disease spinout.  Maki.VC and Rockmount Seed Investments also supported the round.

One vaccine developed this way has already been licensed to Vaccitech for human trials.

Blight and his cofounders Ariane Gomes and Philip Kemlo developed the technique while working at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, where they developed vaccines for a number of diseases, including human papillomavirus (HPV), dengue fever and salmonella. The HPV vaccine has been licensed to Vaccitech for human trials.

The team had already started speaking to investors about potential funding before Covid-19 hit, but found fundraising slow going. Until the pandemic hit, that is. Then, with the global spotlight on vaccine technology, so many potential investors expressed an interest that the Baseimmune team was hard-pressed to choose between them.

Now the plan is to hire a few more staff, and also to find a big biotech partner to work with on the Covid-19 vaccine. The team are also working on a vaccine for African swine fever (ASF), a disease with an extremely high mortality rate affecting pigs.

“We decided to take the multi-vaccine route and do a veterinary vaccine as well because it can be quicker to get these into testing. We can get these vaccines into pigs in 18 months, and if we can demonstrate it works, it is a big showcase of what we can do,” Blight told Sifted. Getting the first variant-resistant Covid-19 vaccines into humans — even at the accelerated speeds the pharma industry has achieved during the pandemic — is likely to take longer.

The method could mean saying goodbye to the annual flu jab.

If it works, however, it would mean not having to keep trying to outpace a rapidly mutating virus. And Blight says the technique could mean being able to also vaccinate against all variants of flu so that people would no longer have to get an annual vaccination. It might be possible to develop effective vaccines for diseases like malaria, where existing vaccines have a very short efficacy period.

“We want to have an impact on as many diseases as possible. I know it’s a big ambition, but if you don’t think big, what is the point?” said Blight.