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Finnish nasal vaccine firm scrambles for financing

The professors behind an open source nasal vaccine say that the effort needs tens of millions of euros in funding.

Securing funding for the final phase of the coronavirus nasal vaccine is proving to be difficult, says Kalle Saksela, one of the professors developing the vaccine. Image: Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva

The researchers behind a nasally-administered coronavirus vaccine under development in Finland say time is running out to get their project off the ground.

They say one problem is the arrival of other vaccines, as clinical trials of vaccines require large numbers of people who have not yet been vaccinated. Meanwhile, because the inoculation is based on open source tech and not patented, enthusiasm among pharmaceutical companies for backing the project has been minimal.

At the end of last year, the three professors behind the nasal vaccine project, Seppo Ylä-Herttuala, Kalle Saksela and Kari Alitalo, founded the firm Rokote Laboratories, which aims to finalise development of its coronavirus vaccine nasal spray.

The professors say that the vaccine's development has progressed well and that clinical trials are scheduled to start in early summer. However, they also emphasise that time is running out and that decisions need to be made before the end of March.

They say the project needs around eight million euros to prepare applications for authorisation and to complete the clinical trials. After that, another 50 to 60 million euros would still be needed for the last clinical trial, which would involve tens of thousands of people, according to the firm.

Funding needed soon

Co-founder Saksela, a professor of virology at the University of Helsinki, says that the project needs immediate funding because the clinical trials require an environment in which a large number of people can be exposed to the virus.

This becomes more difficult as coronavirus vaccinations are being distributed at an increasing rate, he explained, adding that they only have a few weeks left to get the financing.

"If we don't secure funding this month, we risk losing the momentum. In order to increase security of supply in Finland, it would be important to get moving now, while we can still carry out clinical trials," he said.

The firm pointed out that it has only secured a few million euros in funding so far.

"On one hand, we are expected to support the Finnish vaccine industry, or even to support the state's security of supply, but when it comes to financing our work, we are told it's impossible to invest the required amounts into a company that is brand new," Saksela stated.

Saksela said he thinks that commitment and backing from the state would ensure that the costly final clinical trial phase could go ahead--and that an investor would be found.

Minister open to funding

On Wednesday the Finnish Minister for Economic Affairs Mika Lintilä (Cen) said that he thought the government would be prepared to start financing the Finnish coronavirus manufacturer.

Interviewed on the Yle current affairs TV programme A-studio, Lintilä did not mention any concrete funding levels, but promised to raise the issue within the cabinet.

"We have had discussions within the government, and I have visited the laboratory in Kuopio. My own understanding is that there is private funding available to the company. This would mean that it would be possible for the government to also get involved in the funding. We are prepared for funding. This will be raised with the cabinet soon," Lintilä said on Wednesday evening.

However, he noted that the government could not be solely responsible for bankrolling the project.

Open source tech

Financing of the effort has been further hampered because the research has been carried out on an open source basis. The team of professors have gathered research data, refined it, added their own observations and are making it freely available.

Saksela has described his team's project as the "Linux vaccine", referencing the open source Linux computer operating system, originally developed by Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki.

Patenting the Finnish coronavirus nasal vaccine would be impossible —decreasing the vaccine's appeal to investors as it would be harder to generate profits from an open-source product.

However, Saksela says that the lack of patents does not affect the investment’s economic viability.

He said that a production line would still need to be found in order for the vaccine to be manufactured and prepared for market.

Saksela said that gene therapy manufacturer Finvector would be ready to begin manufacturing the vaccine at its facility at the University of Eastern Finland, in Kuopio.