By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A global coalition set up to fight emerging epidemics said on Thursday it would give up to $19 million to drugmaker Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine unit and Oxford University experts to work on immunisations against three major diseases.

Research will focus on the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, the brain-damaging Nipah virus, and the Lassa virus, which causes haemorrghagic fever, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) said.

Both J&J’s Janssen Vaccines unit and specialists at Oxford’s Jenner Institute were involved in the development of vaccines against Ebola during the 2014 West Africa outbreak.

The hope is that some of that experience will speed up work against new emerging infectious diseases, CEPI’s chief executive officer Richard Hatchett said in a statement.

MERS first emerged in humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to infect more than 2,200 people in dozens of countries. The vast majority of the cases – around 1,800 of them – have been in Saudi Arabia.

MERS is related to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus and kills one in three of those it infects.

Oxford has started early-stage development of a potential MERS vaccine. In collaboration with Janssen, it will receive $14.6 million from CEPI to fund manufacturing of a batch for second-phase testing, with an option to provide extra funds for possible stockpiling if the results look promising.

CEPI will also provide funding of up to $2.1 million for early-stage development of a Lassa vaccine and up to $2.0 million to explore Nipah vaccine potential.

Both Lassa and Nipah viruses cause small but frequent outbreaks of disease in Asia and Africa, and experts say they have shown the capacity to spread across borders and become fast-growing and potential deadly epidemics.

Hatchett said the deal showed the coalition’s aim: “To drive development of vaccines to protect humanity against threats posed by emerging infectious diseases and to bring together the expertise of academia and the public and private sectors”.

CEPI, set up in January 2017, was designed to avoid the kind of slow response seen in the West African 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,300 people before an effective vaccine was developed.

The group is funded by Norway, Germany, Japan, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Britain’s Wellcome Trust.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)