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Image Credit: REUTERS

Moderna Inc. is close to clinching a deal with the US Department of Defense to develop messenger RNA vaccines targeting a range of biological threats such as Ebola virus.

The contract will see Moderna work with researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to build on the company's mRNA technology that was used to rapidly make COVID-19 vaccines, according to people familiar with the situation who were not authorized to speak on the deal because it has not yet been finalized. Ebola has returned to the fore as a vaccine-resistant strain of the deadly virus spawned an outbreak in Uganda that began in September.

While talks between Moderna, UTMB and the Defense Department began well before the Uganda outbreak, Moderna's vaccine aims to target the strain spreading there, called Sudan ebolavirus, as well as the more-common Zaire strain and related Marburg virus, according to one of the people. However, it's unlikely Moderna's candidate would be ready to use in time to address the burst of cases in Uganda. So far 95 people have been infected in that country, according to its Ministry of Health.

Moderna declined to comment on the pending contract, and financial terms were not available. The company "continues to explore potential Ebola vaccines, based on earlier research conducted with academic partners," a spokesperson said in an email. Moderna has said earlier that it's committed to advancing clinical studies of 15 vaccine programs targeting emerging or neglected infectious diseases by 2025.

With climate change, population growth and global travel expected to increase the rise and spread of infections, the Biden administration is preparing for the next big Covid-like event. The administration recently released a National Biodefense Strategy that places the White House at the center of responses to such crises and elevates the role of some government branches, including the Defense Department.

Top priorities

The department has "strategic investments focused on technologies that address the dynamic and evolving biological threat landscape, including mRNA vaccine technologies," according to Navy Commander Nicole Schwegman, a Pentagon spokesperson. Although the department said it could not comment directly on future contracts, Schwegman said that as part of its "enhanced biodefense and pandemic preparedness, DOD is developing an Ebola vaccine, which it will take through clinical trials."

Securing vaccines against the Sudan Ebola strain and Marburg virus are top priorities for US pandemic preparedness, according to the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. BARDA, which is housed within the Department of Health and Human Services, has invested about $165 million in direct funding on ebolavirus vaccines, according to an agency spokesperson.

Before its blockbuster success with Covid, Moderna looked at using its mRNA platform to make vaccines for other infectious diseases, such as Ebola. In 2018, UTMB researchers used funding from Moderna and the US National Institutes of Health to design and test two experimental mRNA vaccines for Ebola in animals. While the study found that the vaccine candidates were "highly efficacious" and had "all the attributes of a promising candidate to advance to clinical trials," those trials never went forward.

During the early months of the pandemic, Moderna secured a $483 million contract with BARDA to develop and test an mRNA-based Covid vaccine through approval by US regulators, as well as efforts to scale up manufacturing.