"We are going for 100% protection against coronavirus."

December 21, 2020

Ziphius Vaccines from Ghent is betting on a new technology to develop a COVID-19 vaccine 2.0. If everything goes smoothly, the first patient trials will start in autumn 2021.

The first Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines have been administered. Soon, we can expect the same for the Moderna vaccine. Large-scale studies have previously shown that they work very well and that they provide protection in 95% of cases. "We are going for the remaining 5%", says pharmaceutical entrepreneur Chris Cardon, who is already on his third adventure with the Flemish biotech company Ziphius. "We are aiming for 100% protection."

The ambitions are big, but -just to be clear- the road ahead is still a long one. In the search for a vaccine this year, Ziphius, just like BioNTech and Moderna, appealed to mRNA (messenger RNA), a fairly new discipline in the medical world. This involves injecting a piece of the virus's genetic code, after which body cells produce proteins that are characteristic of the virus. This triggers an immune response, which trains the body for a real virus attack in the future.

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mRNA 2.0

Ziphius thought it would be possible to test such a mRNA vaccine on volunteers as early as this year, but changed its plan. "We are now working on a vaccine 20," says Cardon. to make a difference in the future, Ziphius is now targeting several pieces of the virus with one vaccine, not just the spike protein that is the target of all vaccines.

it uses 'self-amplifying mRNA' for this purpose. This is an improved variant of mRNA, in which Ghent University is one of the frontrunners. "We have just received the first results of animal studies, and they are spectacular. The immune response is many times stronger", says Cardon.

This offers the opportunity to achieve the same result with a lower dose and a lower cost. "Possibly, we have found the key for a vaccination in which one dose is sufficient instead of two," says Cardon. "Agreed, we are not sure about that yet, but we have indications that are sufficient to investigate this further. This is a moonshot. Everything is possible until it happens," says Cardon.

Late at the party

He expects​ to be able to test his potential vaccine on volunteers in the third or fourth quarter. So Ziphius arrives at the party quite late. "But that is no problem if you come up with something better," says Cardon. He also assumes that the current vaccines do not offer lifelong protection and that -as with the flu- recurrent vaccinations will be required. 

Ziphius Vaccines is a fast grower in the vaccine world, building on a technology developed at Ghent University by Professor Niek Sanders and his team. Ziphius bets on many horses at the same time and is also working on vaccines against the respiratory diseases RSV, chlamydia, hepatitis C and HPV. All studies are still at an early stage.

Ziphius, named after a rare dolphin, has already raised more than 6 million euros in capital since it was launched last year. Currently, the company has 22 employees and aims to double by the end of next year. "We are growing so fast that we get housing issues. We now have to work with lab containers on the parking lot," says Cardon.

The pharmacist's son founded Mooss Pharma in his twenties, built it into a company of 120 people and sold it to Omega Pharma. This was followed -together with Marc Coucke- by an adventure with the veterinary medicines company Ecuphar, which is listed on the London stock exchange and is worth 120 million pounds.

By: Jan de Schamphelaere

Picture: Kurt

This article was published in "De Tijd" on December 21, 2020.