South Dakota company develops COVID-19 vaccine for animals

Oct. 5, 2020

Your cat could be vaccinated against COVID-19 if the approach developed by a South Dakota company receives funding to move forward.

Medgene Labs, which was formed out of technology licensed by SDSU, has developed a COVID-19 vaccine for companion animals that it says has shown promise in preclinical studies.

“Our main business is livestock vaccines. We’ve made a lot of coronavirus vaccines for pigs and cows, so it was very easy for us to say ‘We understand the virus. We understand it can mutate and cause problems, so why wouldn’t we go ahead and create the vaccine for companion animals?’ ” CEO Mark Luecke said.

Science Magazine recently reported what Luecke calls strong evidence of animal-to-human transmission of COVID-19 on mink farms in the Netherlands, prompting the culling of 1 million minks on Danish farms because of infections.

Closer to home, infection more likely would affect cats, he said.

“Cats have been shown to get infected at a much higher rate than dogs,” he said. “Part of the challenge is they could be asymptomatic, just like some people. In a study from Colorado State University, they didn’t show a lot of clinical signs, but they showed high rates of infection.”

The concern is that a reservoir of COVID-19 could be established in animals, giving the virus an environment to mutate and infect animals and people with a different strain in the future.

“As COVID-19 mutates in the field, the current vaccines being developed could become ineffective depending on how the virus mutates,” Luecke said. “We’re trying to get ahead of that with our technology.”

Medgene’s ISPRIME platform technology was used to develop the vaccine. Once researchers in Brookings had received the sequence for the virus, “it was a matter of weeks until we had the vaccine developed,” Luecke said.

The testing process takes longer and costs more. Medgene is seeking $7.2 million in funding and hopes the South Dakota Legislature will consider it in pandemic-related appropriations. Lawmakers meet in a special session today.

“Part of the funding would be used to complete our testing in cats, which is pretty extensive because we have to line up household cats in geographically dispersed areas, and the other part is to work our way to an investigational new drug milestone with the FDA,” Luecke said.

Preclinical testing in mice has produced “very positive results,” he added.

There are more than 95 million cats in the U.S., he said, and nearly 90 million dogs. A different coronavirus killed 8 million baby pigs in the U.S. in 2013. Medgene, South Dakota’s only federally licensed vaccine production company, is capable of producing more than 250 million vaccine doses annually.

The USDA regulates approval of vaccines in animals, while the FDA does in humans. Medgene is in the process of getting its overall platform approved by the USDA and is hoping to eventually do the same with the FDA, he said.

Once the system is approved as a platform technology, “as viruses change you can change the vaccine without having to get new regulatory approval from the USDA,” he said.

“We don’t have it yet, but we’re very, very close.”

The 25-person company has honed its approach over the past four years, he said. While it primarily focuses on vaccines for livestock, “Medgene has the platform technology to make sure we’re prepared as a society for these types of emerging diseases, so our thought was why wouldn’t we,” Luecke said.

“We’ve got the technology and the talent and scientists to do it. There are a lot of investments being made in vaccine development, and we believe we have a superior platform technology to what’s out there. So it’s important to create awareness about what we’re doing.”

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South Dakota company develops COVID-19 vaccine for animals

Your cat could be vaccinated against COVID-19 if the approach developed by a South Dakota company receives funding to move forward.

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