In the mid-1980s, Jonathan Heeney was a doctoral student at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Maryland when he was told to fly to Oregon – across the country – to investigate a mysterious new disease that was causing a wave of sudden deaths in a group of captive cheetahs.
For Heeney, this turned out to be his first known encounter with coronavirus. “We ultimately determined it was a coronavirus that jumped from house cats to these cheetahs,” he says. “And because the cheetahs were a new host, it caused a lot of death and destruction. So that was my introduction to them.”
Four decades later, Heeney heads DIOSynVax, a Cambridge, UK-based biotech company which recently received a $42m (£34m/€41m) grant. from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the foundation backed by Bill and Melinda Gates, the governments of India and Norway, and the World Economic Forum, among others.
Heeney and his colleagues face a challenge that has long proven insurmountable for scientists: to develop vaccines that can protect not just against a single coronavirus, but against multiple strains, varieties, and perhaps even entire families of them. them. A comparable feat has never been achieved in the history of virology, after more than two decades of pursuing the same goal in influenza, it has yielded few results. Some have even compared the ambition, scope and difficulty of the task to the infamous Manhattan Project of the 1940s, which pushed the boundaries of physics at the time and produced the world’s first atomic bomb.
Money is thrown at the target with unprecedented sums. CEPI has allocated an initial budget of around $200m (£169m/€193m), with the NIH adding a further $36m (£30m/€35m) to the jar. Building on its success in developing one of the first Covid-19 vaccines, Moderna recently entered the fray, announcing plans to produce a vaccine that could protect against the four coronaviruses that cause the common cold.
Heeney knows the road ahead better than anyone, having also spent the last few years trying to develop a unique vaccine capable of protecting against different viral hemorrhagic fevers – Ebola, Marburg virus and Lassa fever.
“We take a similar approach,” he says. “It’s about looking at the structural biology, the genetic relationships, what changes in these viruses and what doesn’t.”