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Article: Boehringer - more zoonotic disease threats lie in wait

21 May 2020

This article is taken from our Animal Pharm dated 20/05/20.

A vaccine specialist at Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health believes there are many zoonotic viruses that are yet to be discovered.#

Jean-Christophe Audonnet - the firm's senior director in vaccines R&D - believes zoonotic outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, "might become more frequent in the future".

He noted: "Urbanization, economic development and climate change are fostering human contact with wild fauna. Many unknown viruses lurk in the wild, particularly in mammals. Quite a few of them have the potential to jump to species such as humans or livestock. In the past 30 years, more than 20 pathogens have made the leap to humans."

Dr Audonnet suggested designing efficient veterinary vaccines can be a good precursor to the development of human vaccines, as both share many technologies.

This is one of the aims of the Zoonoses Anticipation and Preparedness Initiative (ZAPI) project consortium, which features scientists from Boehringer's animal health business. ZAPI aims to identify countermeasures and processes applicable to COVID-19 and similar emerging diseases.

Dr Audonnet has been coordinating ZAPI over the last five years, as the private-public consortium collects research on coronaviruses affecting animals.

He said: "Animals and humans share the same space on our globe and often 'share' the same germs - the zoonotic agents. Our project has this very unique characteristic. It combines both animal and human health, linked through innovative technologies.

"Our goal has been to set up tools, platforms and processes that could be on standby, ready for the production of vaccines and monoclonal antibodies in case of an outbreak.

"Our research uses three different prototype models of diseases that occurred in the recent past and are zoonotic in nature - the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, the Schmallenberg virus that affects livestock and the Rift Valley fever virus that affects both humans and livestock. The starting point is when the virus has been isolated or when the viral genetic code has been deciphered, which can be done today a few days after the first clinical case is discovered.

"We search for a fragment of the virus that can trigger an immune response and can be used to build a vaccine. ZAPI is trying to accelerate this process with a combination of specific software programs, databases and computer processing. With that, we can predict the smallest stretch of a viral envelope glycoprotein that will still trigger a strong immune response.

"The team found out this approach may lead to a swift identification of the best subunit of virus for the next stage (for all three viral models used in the ZAPI project). Then, they need to find a vehicle that could efficiently transport any such subunit to the immune system into the body."

Boehringer stated: "The team has been dedicated to developing a platform to hopefully open new treatment paths for newly emerging viruses. The explosion of SARS-CoV-2 represents a painful example of the importance of having countermeasures ready in advance."

ZAPI's work recently received a further European Commission grant to conduct specific COVID-19 research. The consortium is also funded by the Innovative Medicines Initiative. To date, ZAPI has received over €22 million ($24 million) in funding.

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