The business has just won a multi-million-pound UK government contract for human challenge studies, where healthy participants are exposed to the virus to get infected.
Usually, volunteers participating in vaccine trials are not asked to catch the virus but to go about with their day as normal.
In the case of COVID-19, participants will be required to follow restrictions as imposed by their local authorities.
Instead, hVIVO will monitor its patients 24/7, in a trial conducted at the 19-bed facility at London’s Royal Free Hospital with help from researchers at Imperial College.
The first volunteers will enter the facility early next year, where they will be exposed to the virus so that the scientists can build a ‘challenge virus’ to then use in the vaccine trials.
The government has booked three slots for testing the vaccine, which will all be conducted by hVIVO.
The contract announced on Tuesday could be worth up to £40mln, executive chairman Cathal Friel told Proactive.
The preclinical work will cost around £10mln, while up to a further three trials will be priced at around £10mln each based on how many people are involved.
The government has already paid £7.5mln to reserve space for the three studies.
“To develop the challenge model you do two things: first you have got to make the virus to a good manufacturing standard, that’s a £3-4mln process, and then secondly you take that virus and build a characterisation model, that’s your dosing, a £7mln piece of work,” he said.
“And then you have a challenge study model which then you can use to test the characterisation model.”
AIM-listed Open Orphan is not estimating when the first data could be released because of the unpredictability of the study.
“There are lots of variables, this hasn’t been done before, so we have got to be very careful,” Friel commented.
“We have to take our time, we are going very slowly and we are only going to use a tiny, tiny amount [of the virus] that will have no chance of inducing any form of serious illness.”
Meanwhile, the junior pharma company remains busy with other projects.
Its own 24-bed facility for human challenge studies in east London is fully booked until next summer for non-COVID candidates.
“We are emphasising that we are not a COVID company, COVID is just a small part. There’s a huge amount of work on a range of vaccines,” Friel said.
“There has been no money spent on vaccines for 30 years, it was all cancer and collagen, I think we are now going into a decade of a lot of vaccine work.”
“We are the leading developer of vaccine antivirals using the human challenge model, so it’s a nice place to be.”
Shares were trading at 25.85p on Wednesday afternoon, having risen six-fold in the year to date.