Following this week's news that AstraZeneca, the University of Oxford, and our portfolio company Vaccitech's vaccine for COVID-19 is highly effective and safe, my colleague Vidu Shanmugarajah and I invited Vaccitech co-founder Professor Adrian Hill to talk with our portfolio CEOs about the battle against the pandemic. Here Adrian recounts the story behind his search for a vaccine, results from late-stage clinical trials, the challenges of manufacturing and global distribution — and what has to happen next to stop the virus.
The director of Oxford's Jenner Institute, Professor Hill is a world-renowned expert on pandemic threats. He led the first clinical vaccine trial in 2014 against the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, and is a passionate advocate for increased investment in vaccine research. I met him in 2015 when doing diligence on the Oxford science ecosystem. At the time, vaccines were not an area of focus for investors. I remember thinking how odd that was, given that Adrian and his team at the Jenner could have more impact on human health than anyone I had ever met. That impression informed GV's 2017 investment in Vaccitech — but we could not have imagined how quickly that sense about their impact might become true.
At the time, we were very optimistic that the company's methodology could be used to develop a range of vaccines to combat infectious diseases and cancer. Vaccitech has a series of proprietary vectors and approaches to inducing a potent and durable response from the immune system and antibodies. They had clearly defined programs for prostate cancer, influenza, and MERS, a disease also caused by a coronavirus. We had no idea that MERS was closely related to a virus that would soon change the world forever, and that this small team of researchers would become a lifeline in the race to diffuse COVID-19.
In January this year, when Chinese scientists released the genetic sequence for SARSCOV2, Vaccitech focused its powerful technology platform on decoding it. Professor Hill, his colleague Professor Sarah Gilbert and their team, emboldened by their early success in the MERS program, began developing a safe, low-cost vaccine that could be manufactured and distributed at global scale. To make the drug available worldwide as fast as possible, Vaccitech and Oxford University partnered with AstraZeneca, each committing to operate on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the pandemic.
Operating at at a speed an order of magnitude faster than traditional vaccine development, this has culminated in the Phase 3 interim results announced this week: excellent efficacy and safety data in a vaccine that requires only a basic level of refrigeration, can easily be administered by healthcare systems, and can be scaled up quickly to meet global demand.
After what feels like a very long year, the battle against COVID-19 may finally be turning a corner. Thanks to the heroic work of scientists like Professors Hill, Gilbert and their incredible teams, the next six months can bring safe and effective vaccines to people all over the world. As investors, we're in awe of the Vaccitech team and of the enduring global impact their work may have.