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Hong Kong start-up Pacific GeneTech joins global search for African swine fever vaccine

HONG KONG, 24 May, 2020 (South China Morning Post)

  • The disease, for which no effective vaccine has made it to market, has resulted in hundreds of millions of pigs either dying or being culled globally

  • Pacific GeneTech plans to conduct its ‘proof-of-concept’ clinical trial on 120 pigs in North America, at a cost of up to US$500,000


Hong Kong, a financial centre less known for its biotechnology industry and even less for its expertise in animal health technologies, is home to one company with global ambitions in the animal vaccine business.

Pacific GeneTech this month partnered with Rhode Island, US-based EpiVax to develop vaccines for African swine fever (ASF), said CEO Tim Collard, who started his pharmaceutical career in the 1970s at Connaught Laboratories, which supplied vaccines to Hong Kong.

“EpiVax has developed computational and genetic tools to develop vaccines for humans and animals, to facilitate selection of the best components from circulating viruses for making vaccines,” he said in an interview.

“Many vaccines being pursued are unlikely to be effective because ASF is a very tricky virus with multiple strains, which has caused big problems in Asia, Russia and parts of Europe … it is a matter of time before it spreads to the United States.”

The EpiVax approach is based on a strategy to provide immunity through antibodies that neutralise the virus, and also induce immune cells to kill it, he noted. Antibodies can no longer reach the virus once it enters the cell.

Pacific GeneTech plans to conduct its “proof-of-concept” clinical trial on 120 pigs in high-security facilities in North America, which is expected to cost up to US$500,000. It also hopes to do trials in Vietnam, China, Europe and Russia.

ASF has resulted in hundreds of millions of pigs either dying or being culled globally. No effective vaccine has been commercialised.

China has seen ASF cases rising recently as the easing of coronavirus pandemic lockdowns has freed up the movement of livestock and people, noted Rabobank senior analyst Christine McCracken.

“Given continued ASF challenges in China, we maintain our view that pork production will decline by 15 to 20 per cent this year, which will support strong pork prices and imports,” she wrote in a report. China’s pork prices are more than double what they were a year ago.

Globally, some 15 research institutes in eight nations are conducting ASF vaccine research using six different technologies with varying safety and efficacy profiles, according to a Dongxing Securities report.

Phibro Animal Health, based in New Jersey, US, said last year it has made “significant” progress in developing an ASF vaccine by identifying epitopes – key parts of antigens recognisable by pigs’ immune systems – that showed “strong potential” to form the basis for a vaccine. Commercialisation is not expected until three to five years later, it added.

Researchers at Harbin Veterinary Research Institute – a unit of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences – said in February in a paper published in the China Life Sciences journal they have developed a safe and effective vaccine.

It is a live vaccine with weakened virulence, which can be removed entirely by the body within two weeks, they said.

Scaled production is “feasible and cost effective” since each piglet can produce at least 200,000 doses from bone marrow cells, they added, without saying when it may be field tested and whether it is effective on multiple virus strains. The institute did not respond to faxed queries.

The global ASF vaccine market could one day be worth US$1 billion to US$2 billion, according to an estimate by investment advisory firm Guggenheim Partners’ analyst David Westenberg, cited by Animal Pharm.

In China, the world’s biggest pigs breeder and consumer, the market potential of an ASF vaccine could exceed 5 billion yuan, estimated Dongxing’s analyst Cheng Shiyue.

When it was founded, Pacific GeneTech licensed from a consortium of North American universities vaccine technologies that could potentially provide protection against multiple strains and species of pathogens.

It has developed an avian vaccine against Salmonella bacteria, which is pending US regulatory approval and was last month licensed to Iowa-based Kemin Industries for international development and commercialisation.

Pacific GeneTech has raised over US$10 million from investors, including San Francisco-based AVG Ventures, Taiwan’s Yuanta Asia Investments and Indonesian poultry pharmaceutical and vaccine producer Medion.

Co-founded in 2009 by Louis Bowen – chairman of investment firm Asia Capital Management and a former Citigroup banker – it has 12 staff in Hong Kong, Kansas City in the US, and Oxford, UK.

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