First steps to Rheumatic Fever vaccine

16 September 2014

Trans-Tasman researchers hope to fast-track developing a vaccine to combat the ‘sore throat that breaks hearts' in New Zealand.

The Coalition to Advance New Vaccines for Group A Streptococcus (CANVAS), is a new rheumatic fever prevention initiative given kickstart funding for 18 months by the governments of New Zealand and Australia.

New Zealand’s rheumatic fever rates are about 14 times higher than any other OECD country and 92 per cent of cases are Māori and Pacific. The disease, which can lead to life-threatening scarring of heart valves and heart surgery at a young age, also disproportionately hits Australian aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

Professor John Fraser, the University of Auckland medical health and sciences dean, said a discussion between himself and the Prime Minister John Key had lead to each government putting in $1.5 million into the trans-Tasman partnership. The coalition over the next 18 months will evaluate and take the first steps to accelerating the development of a vaccine for Australasia selected from three vaccines already in development overseas.

Kaitaia GP and 2014 New Zealander of the Year, Lance O’Sullivan, describes the possibility of developing a vaccine to reduce the burden of Strep A disease as “truly exciting”.

“We know the power of vaccination programmes and strengthening our population’s ability to combat infection is overall a far more efficient approach than treating the complications of disease. This trans-Tasman approach is an important step to support the provision of equitable health outcomes for all.”

Fraser says developing a rheumatic fever vaccine poses “significant challenges” because Group A Streptococcus (the bacteria that causes rheumatic fever) has up to 200 different strains, so any vaccine must have good coverage against most of the strains circulating in the community.

“Vaccines for certain infectious diseases are not as commercially rewarding as other therapeutics.,” said Fraser. “Anything more than a dollar a dose is too expensive for public health, hence, it’s difficult to get vaccine development through big pharma and most vaccines developed in the last 15 years have emerged through a combination of government, private and philanthropic investment.”

The first 18 month-stage of the $3 million project will see the team carry out genomic and laboratory-based work plus a health-economics analysis. Based on performance and results the government may commit further spending to support subsequent clinical trials and vaccination.

The CANVAS partnership will evaluate the three existing vaccines from three different countries through a special partnership that will oversee intellectual property management and negotiation with commercial partners.

See also Nursing Review article on nurses involvement in the fight against the sore throat that breaks hearts: