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Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations Supports MERS & Lassa Enhanced DNA Vaccine Technology to Expedite Vaccine Development

PHILADELPHIA — (April 19, 2018) — The Wistar Institute and Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Inc. are leading the charge to rapidly advance a Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) vaccine through phase II development as part of an innovative partnership with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). CEPI, which launched last year, aims to derail epidemics by speeding up the development of vaccines.

CEPI will fund nearly $56 million to support pre-clinical and clinical research of Inovio’s Lassa fever vaccine and to further develop a MERS DNA vaccine based on key technology generated in the lab of David B. Weiner, Ph.D., executive vice president, director of the Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, and the W.W. Smith Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at The Wistar Institute. Wistar is a sub-awardee and will receive more than $4 million to support continuing MERS DNA vaccine technology research. 

“Wistar is proud to be one of the first set of CEPI consortium members to receive funding that will accelerate development of vaccines for MERS and Lassa fever into efficacy trials in the next few years,” said Weiner. “In this day and age where diseases have no borders, it is imperative that our vaccine arsenal is ready to react. The goal is for these vaccines to be available as soon as possible for global and on-site emergency deployment when needed.”

MERS is a highly infectious respiratory disease predominant in the Middle East and spread through camels and bats. In 2015, an individual with MERS returned to South Korea from the Middle East. This resulted in an outbreak that resulted in 186 confirmed cases and 38 deaths. The outbreak affected 24 hospitals, led to the temporary closure of more than 2,000 schools, and had a significant impact on the South Korean economy. The World Health Organization (WHO) listed MERS as a potential public health emergency in the 2018 annual review of the Blueprint list of priority diseases. 

Lassa fever, which is being championed by U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), is a disease endemic to West Africa associated with annual outbreaks. An ongoing outbreak in Nigeria has, according to figures from the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, resulted in over 400 confirmed cases and over 100 deaths from Jan. 1 through April 8 of 2018. 

Working in partnership with government, industry and academia, CEPI picked MERS as one of the top three infectious diseases for which vaccine development and rapid deployment would be critical. The enhanced DNA vaccine technology has early clinical support with a public health advantage against rapidly emerging pathogens like this one because it is conceptually safe and immune potent, can be manufactured quickly and easily, is stable to ship, and can be developed to be temperature stable, according to Weiner.

“The team has rapidly developed and deployed a MERS vaccine that was protective against MERS in animal models and was moved to clinical study with the Walter Reed Army Research Institute (WRAIR),” he said. “This partnership affords the opportunity to further improve the impact of this platform and move clinical advancement to globally important outbreak sites for later scale study. If successful, these novel DNA vaccines could serve as impactful countermeasures against these emerging diseases.”
Further, clinical trials are likely to start by 2019, according to Weiner, taking advantage of the research learnings of the team that led to the rapid deployment with immune potency for the DNA-based Zika vaccine currently in development.   

This is the second funding agreement CEPI has signed with an industry partner since its launch in 2017. Leveraging existing industry and academia partnerships represents an innovative approach to funding vaccine development and unlocking research and development potential so that vaccines are ready for efficacy studies during an outbreak. The agreement enables funding support for MERS and Lassa DNA vaccine development efforts over a five-year period.

The research platform was developed in collaboration with Wistar’s Weiner Lab, Joseph Kim, Ph.D., Inovio CEO, and Niranjan Sardesai, Ph.D., Inovio chief operating officer; Gary Kobinger, Ph.D., head of special pathogens, National Microbiology Laboratory at the Public Health Agency of Canada; and Heintz Feldmann, M.D., Ph.D., Laboratory of Virology, National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Rocky Mountain Laboratories. Inovio is currently advancing the MERS and Lassa vaccines with the support of Wistar, Laval University, the NIHs Rocky Mountain Laboratories, USAMRIID, VGXI/GeneOne Life Science and the International Vaccine Institute.

The Weiner Laboratory at Wistar is dedicated to accelerating DNA-based vaccine technology. Weiner is igniting collaboration to advance vaccines against not only MERS, but also Zika, Influenza, HIV, Ebola, CHIKV, and combination therapies for ovarian, prostate, and other cancers. Having established national and global relationships between academia, industry, and government, Weiner’s research expands upon Wistar’s mission to create new treatments for the most uncompromising diseases and make lifesaving contributions to immunology, cancer biology and infectious diseases. 

In PhotoIn London, England, Joseph Kim, Ph.D., Inovio CEO, and David Weiner, Ph.D., executive vice president, director of the Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, and the W.W. Smith Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at The Wistar Institute, accept the award for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) study “Translational Platform Program encompassing cGMP manufacturing and clinical development of DNA vaccine candidates against both Lassa virus and MERS coronavirus.” Kim and Weiner are flanking Richard Hatchett (red striped tie), CEPI director, and surrounded by additional CEPI members. 


The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research with special expertise in cancer research and vaccine development. Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the United States, Wistar has held the prestigious Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute since 1972. The Institute works actively to ensure that research advances move from the laboratory to the clinic as quickly as possible.

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