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NEC and CEPI begin developing next generation Betacoronavirus vaccines using cutting-edge AI

2022.06.02

NEC and its Norwegian subsidiary NEC OncoImmunity, together with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international fund that funds pharmaceutical companies and research institutes that develop vaccines, announced on April 8 that they had begun development of a next-generation vaccine that is effective against all Betacoronaviruses including the novel coronavirus and its close relatives. CEPI plans to provide up to U.S. $4.8 million as funding.

NEC held an online press conference on the same day, with the company's Chairman Nobuhiro Endo, Akira Kitamura, General Manager of the AI Drug Development Division, and Nobunao Tagaya, Senior Assistant Minister at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, in attendance to provide an overview. In addition, CEO of CEPI Richard Hatchett also commented via video, and Professor Ken Ishii from the Institute of Medical Science, University of Tokyo, participated online. During the press conference, NEC explained that it was leading a research consortium via NEC OncoImmunity that includes the European Vaccine Initiative (EVI), a non-profit vaccine development organization based in Germany, and the Oslo University Hospital. The consortium is designing mRNA vaccines against a wide range of Betacoronaviruses and is also implementing validation projects. As part of this plan, NEC's AI-based vaccine design technology and knowledge will be used in the search for new viral antigens that are effective against all Betacoronaviruses. Non-clinical studies will then be conducted using Betacoronaviruses that have widely spread, such as SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2, and MERS-CoV. Finally, viral antigens with particularly high efficacy will be selected for use in vaccine design.

If the utility of this innovative approach can be demonstrated, it could then be used for vaccines against other pathogens, including "Disease X", an unknown pandemic-causing pathogen that CEPI has included as part of its portfolio. These new vaccines, which CEPI will fund, are based around a principle of equitable access. Following this policy, NEC has entered into a funding agreement with CEPI and has committed to providing equal access to the project's results. In a comment by video, CEO of CEPI Richard Hatchett explained, "Coronaviruses have now proven their pandemic potential with devastating consequences, and COVID-19 won't be the last coronavirus to threaten humanity. That's why CEPI's ambitious program to develop globally accessible vaccines that protect against a broad range of coronaviruses - before those pathogens emerge - is critical to global health security" He went on to add, "Japan has a proud history of global health leadership and has long championed the role of research and development in fighting emerging infectious diseases, including the Government of Japan's critical role as a founding member and major investor in CEPI. I am delighted that CEPI will partner with NEC Corporation - our first collaboration with Japanese industry. We will progress with developing this innovative, AI-driven approach to vaccine design, which could help take the threat of coronaviruses off the table if it is proven to be successful"

NEC's Chairman Nobuhiro Endo said enthusiastically, "While this partnership is a recognition of NEC's expertise and growing contribution to healthcare, it also acknowledges Japan's leadership in advancing drug development through breakthrough technologies. We will continue to mobilize the resources of the NEC Group for this collaborative effort to ensure global health security."

Nobunao Tagaya, Senior Assistant Minister at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, also commented, "In February 2022, the Government of Japan announced a new contribution of US$300 million to CEPI over the next five years, and has been actively supporting the development of vaccines in the international community. We expect that NEC will contribute to global health with the development of next-generation vaccines using the world's most advanced AI."

Professor Ishii of the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo said, "For the Japanese vaccine industry, NEC's participation in this global challenge is great news. We look forward to it contributing to the early countermeasures against pandemics by advancing the speedy development of safer and more effective vaccines with the new science approach of utilizing AI."

This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd.(https://sci-news.co.jp/). Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.

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