Oxford vaccine team wins £1.4m to develop jab against ‘super gonorrhoea’

The Oxford University institute behind the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine has been awarded $2 million (£1.4m) to develop a jab against the increasing threat of “super gonorrhoea”. 

Researchers at the Jenner Institute believe their vaccine, one of just a handful currently in development, will prevent infections from different strains of the sexually transmitted infection (STI), including the most powerful multi-drug resistant forms that are spreading around the world. 

In 2018 a British man contracted the “worst ever” case of super gonorrhoea while on holiday in south east Asia – the first time standard antibiotics did not work against the infection. Since then, cases of the multi-drug resistant form of the STI have been spread within the UK. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified gonorrhoea as a “priority pathogen” as 78 million people a year globally – including around half a million in the UK – are estimated to be infected with the disease, which has developed resistance to most standard antibiotics.

Last year, Public Health England reported that the number of gonorrhoea cases diagnosed in England in 2019 reached its highest level in more than 100 years.

The infection spreads easily because many of those who contract it do not display symptoms but, if they are untreated, can become infertile. 

The funding, from a non-profit partnership called Carb-X that is supported by the UK and US governments as well as philanthropic foundations, will help researchers take the vaccine to phase one clinical trials. 

Professor Cal MacLennan, senior clinical fellow at Oxford University, said that development of a gonorrhoea vaccine would probably take a few years, unlike the Covid jab which took less than a year. Normally, vaccine development has a 10-year timeline.

“If everyone drops everything, which is essentially what happened with Covid, and you pump enormous amounts of money into it, you can do a lot very quickly. Covid has broken the paradigm in terms of what can be achieved. But the normal route, even for vaccines that are fully funded by industry, is still many years,” he said. 

Researchers have tried to develop a vaccine against gonorrhoea in the past but have failed because the infection “is a really difficult disease to deal with”, said Prof MacLennan.

“The problem is that infection doesn’t necessarily confer immunity, so essentially a vaccine has to be better than infection. With Covid you develop antibodies and you tend to have some protection against the disease, but unfortunately that’s not the case with gonorrhoea so you can get repeated infections, particularly in individuals who are at high risk,” he said. 

The vaccine confers protection by targeting the outer surface of bacteria in the form of fluid-filled blebs or blisters.

The researchers hope to develop an affordable vaccine that can be used in both high and low income countries.

Gonorrhoea is most prevalent in Africa, where 1.9 per cent of women and 1.6 per cent of men are thought to be infected, compared to 0.9 per cent of women and 0.7 per cent of men globally. 

Prof MacLennan said WHO is currently considering who should be given the vaccine but targeting teenagers at the point they receive the human papillomavirus shot, which protects against cervical cancer, would be a sensible option.

“One of the things about global vaccine delivery is if you’ve got a time point where you’re giving a vaccine then adding another vaccine at that time point makes a lot of sense,” he said. 

Gonorrhoea is just one of many infections that is developing resistance to common types of treatment. It is thought that, if left unchecked, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) could kill up to 10 million people globally by 2050.

Lord Bethell, the UK minister for innovation, welcomed the development of a vaccine to target a drug-resistant pathogen.

“AMR has the potential to affect all countries, and all our lives so this global challenge needs a global solution. That’s why the UK is providing funding (via CARB-X) to develop a vaccine which could bring a new solution to this dangerous problem.”

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