The Swiss Army Vaccine
Bloomberg Businessweek|December 13, 2021
There are promising signs that a single vaccine could protect against multiple coronaviruses and variants. But with pharma companies invested in boosters, will anyone pay to develop it?
Robert Langreth

As Covid-19 began spreading in early 2020, one of Linfa Wang’s first ideas was to test the blood of people who’d survived a previous coronavirus outbreak. The virologist, who works out of Duke-NUS Medical School, a collaboration between Duke and the National University of Singapore, has been studying bat-borne viruses for decades. He’d helped show that SARS-CoV-1, which killed almost 800 people in 2003, likely jumped to humans from horseshoe bats. Wang’s new theory was that people who’d recovered from the original SARS might harbor antibodies that could help fight the new one, SARS-CoV-2.

Initially, the experiment was a bust. The patients Wang tested had antibodies only against the older version of SARS. But as a number of Covid variants began spreading early this year, he decided to test the patients again. By this point, many of the Singaporean SARS survivors had also been vaccinated against Covid, providing a rare set of immune systems that had been exposed to proteins from these related coronaviruses.

What Wang found astonished him. After getting the Covid shot, the SARS patients had developed something akin to super-antibodies, which blocked both SARS viruses and a multitude of other coronaviruses. All eight patients had anti bodies that, in test-tube experiments, neutralized five different bat and pangolin coronavirus strains that had never infected humans. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August, offered one of the strongest bodies of evidence that a universal coronavirus vaccine is possible.

The need is growing—as public health officials know all too well, three new coronavirus diseases have emerged in just 20 years: first SARS, then MERS in 2012, and now Covid. At his 13th-floor lab a few kilometers from Singapore’s central business district, Wang is working on a prototype vaccine that could generate the same type of wide-ranging immune response he saw in the Covid-vaccinated SARS survivors. His regimen combines a first shot containing the Covid spike protein with a second shot containing a hybrid SARS protein. If it works—Wang says experiments in mice are promising—the vaccine could be deployed in the event of a Covid-26 or a SARS-3.

“We want something that is broadly protective, so that when the next one jumps from animals to humans, we already have a vaccine in hand,” says Melanie Saville, head of vaccine research and development at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a global nonprofit based in Oslo. CEPI plans to spend $200 million to develop broad-acting coronavirus vaccines over the next five years. One of its first grants under the program was awarded in November to Israel’s MigVax Ltd., a crowdfunded startup working on a “variant-proof” Covid vaccine in tablet form.

A broad-acting vaccine could provide a ready-to-use weapon against threats such as omicron, which has far more mutations than any previously identified variant and which researchers and governments are scrambling to understand and to develop boosters for. “After delta there is going to be something else, until we run out of Greek letters,” University of Pennsylvania researcher Drew Weissman told me in the days before omicron was named. “By making a booster, you are always a step behind.”

Weissman, who pioneered key technology used in both the Pfizer and Moderna messenger RNA vaccines, is among those working on pancoronavirus shots. Initially, such vaccines are likely to focus on fairly close relatives of Covid, but the more ambitious goal is protecting against a wide array of coronaviruses, including several strains that cause the common cold. Given the plethora of bat coronaviruses lurking in nature, there’s every reason to expect more Covid-like epidemics. Future ones could be “as bad as or even worse than what we are going through right now,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser. “Rather than responding to the next outbreak, it is critical to develop a vaccine that would protect against all iterations of coronavirus.”

In September, Fauci’s agency announced $36.3 million in funding for research into pancoronavirus vaccines by scientists at Harvard, Duke, and the University of Wisconsin. More than a dozen academic teams, along with a handful of biotech companies, are working on the problem. Labs at Duke and a few other U.S. universities have already created proto types demonstrating potent cross-virus immune responses in animals, including against SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, and some related bat coronaviruses. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research also has a shot that’s shown promise against multiple coronaviruses: Its formulation is in a Phase 1 human trial, one of the first such shots to make it that far.

Important questions remain unanswered, such as which parts of the virus to target, which technology works best, and how broad-acting the shots should be. Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc., and many other major Covid vaccine companies aren’t investing heavily so far, instead waiting as the academic research plays out. Mikael Dolsten, chief scientific officer of Pfizer—which is researching an omicron booster and is developing ones for the beta and delta variants with its mRNA vaccine partner, BioNTech SE—says that, given that existing vaccines work and that mRNA shots can be quickly updated, it could be “a dangerous game” to switch tracks to a pancoronavirus shot. “We are following it, but it’s more of an academic approach at the moment,” Dolsten says. “I would say stay with what works.” He posits, too, that waning effectiveness of vaccines over time could turn out to be a bigger problem than variants, something universal shots wouldn’t necessarily solve.

Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna, which is also developing mRNA boosters against the beta, delta, and omicron variants, calls universal vaccines “a good idea” and says he’d be happy to strike partnerships to develop them when viable options emerge. But he cautions that researchers have been working on universal flu vaccines for years without a breakthrough.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEKView All

Bottom-Fishing Can Be Scary

In a rough year for stocks, it’s tempting to try to grab bargains now. Just be careful

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 09, 2022

RETHINKING FAIR PAY

Companies are overhauling compensation amid an uptick in relocations

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

MAKING CONTACT

Getting close enough to touch an animal usually isn't a great idea. But in a quiet lagoon on Mexico's Baja Peninsula, the whales are happy to oblige

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

BUILD BACKS BETTER

In a scoliosis market where treatments have changed little since the 1970s, even new brace technology shows how far we still have to go

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

ASTRONOMICAL HARASSMENT

A long-term survey of women in astronomy reveals a sordid culture of discrimination and inequality in academia

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

The Teen Who Defied DeFi

How a young math whiz nabbed $16 million by exploiting decentralized finance | Index Finance was one of the great hopes of decentralized finance, the blockchain-based movement challenging Wall Street's gatekeepers. With one swift set of transactions, an 18-year-old math prodigy liquidated $16 million of its assets and opened a new legal frontier

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

Nigerian Projects Stall as Chinese Loans Dry Up

President Buhari's legacy could be marred by Beijing's waning appetite for costly public works abroad

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

The Twitter Deal's Big Debt Bill

If the acquisition goes through, the company will face mounting interest expenses as it tries to grow

3 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

The Very Last of Lehman Brothers

The bank whose collapse marked the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis is only mostly dead. Meet the people attending to its final remains

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

This Time Is Different

The slump that startups thought would never happen has arrived

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022
RELATED STORIES

The Price of Complacency

The White House and Congress are fighting over pocket change even though the pandemic is still a threat

10+ mins read
Newsweek
April 15, 2022

Time for a Boost

As changes to the vaccine policy are announced we unpack what you need to know

6 mins read
YOU South Africa
10 March 2022

The US-China Rift is a Health Hazard

The COVID-19 experience may have hurt the world’s ability to fight the next pandemic, largely because relations between the U.S. and China have tanked.

10+ mins read
Newsweek
February 25 - March 04, 2022 (Double Issue)

MOST EFFECTIVE COVID VACCINES

CDC says mRNA works – China’s jabs are JUNK!

1 min read
Globe
February 21, 2022

MIRACLE COVID DRUG COMES WITH A CATCH!

A BREAKTHROUGH medication has been approved by the FDA to fight COVID-19, but it can cause potentially life-threatening interactions with a variety of widely prescribed drugs, warned experts.

1 min read
National Enquirer
January 31, 2022

The Forever Virus

The Omicron wave could possibly mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic. What else does the virus have in store for 2022 and the years to come?

10+ mins read
Newsweek Europe
January 28 - February 04, 2022

The Forever Virus

The Omicron wave could possibly mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic. What else does the virus have in store for 2022 and the years to come?

10+ mins read
Newsweek
January 28 - February 04, 2022

Vacuna COVID-19 en niños: soluciona tus dudas

Los pequeños de 5 a 11 años ya pueden vacunarse frente al coronavirus. De la mano de dos expertos en Pediatría, resolvemos algunas cuestiones que preocupan a los padres.

3 mins read
Ser Padres
Issue 552

An Insider's Guide to Andrographis

Andro what? It isn’t as well-known as echinacea or elderberry, but andrographis—or Andrographis paniculata by its Latin name—may deliver even more powerful relief from colds, flu, and other infections.

4 mins read
Better Nutrition
December 2021

CHINA SET TO SEND 3 ASTRONAUTS ON LONGEST CREWED MISSION YET

China is preparing to send three astronauts to live on its space station for six months — a new milestone for a program that has advanced rapidly in recent years.

4 mins read
Techlife News
October 16, 2021