It took Barney Graham, Jason Mclellan and their collaborators just a weekend in January 2020 to design a novel vaccine they believed would be capable of protecting people against COVID-19. Their design formed the basis for the vaccines that Moderna, Pfizer and others would eventually use to inoculate millions of Americans a little more than a year later, a pace of development unprecedented in the annals of modern medicine.
By then, however, the two pioneering virologists were already thinking about future pandemics— and how they might get ahead of them.
Graham and McLellan are part of a corps of researchers hoping to take the technology they used on COVID-19 vaccines and apply them to an even more futuristic creation: an arsenal of off-the-shelf premade vaccines that could be easily modified to attack new pathogens as they arise—a kind of “pan” or “universal” coronavirus vaccine capable of protecting against many different strains of the virus at the same time.
Even as scientists race to develop booster shots and tweak existing vaccines to work against new variants to SARS2, they’re looking ahead to future pandemics caused by entirely new pathogens from the same coronavirus family, one of just 26 known to infect humans. But SARS-CoV-2 is the third novel, deadly coronavirus to cross over from animals to humans in the last 20 years, and many scientists warn more will inevitably follow. Even though a “universal” vaccine that can protect against any new coronavirus that nature throws at us probably won’t be available this year or next, development has become a high priority.
“We want to be proactive rather than reactive to coronaviruses,” McLellan says. “The idea is to develop a single vaccine that could protect against all different coronaviruses, including ones that are still in bats and haven’t emerged yet.”
The idea isn’t new. Many scientists were already working on pandemic preparation projects before the coronavirus hit, including several experimental pan-coronavirus vaccines. Approaches that show promise include efforts to identify distinct protein molecules common to all coronaviruses that could attract virus-killing antibodies and custom-made nanoparticles studded with viral fragments from a number of different varieties, to name two. Scientists have also been working for years on a universal influenza vaccine that would do away with the need for a yearly shot that only protects against some common strains.
Scientists have long complained that these efforts—particularly those geared toward coronaviruses—have been hampered by low funding and a lack of urgency. Now that may be changing. Over the last six months, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a notice of “special interest” calling for research labs to apply for funding to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine. Democrats have introduced legislation that would allocate a $1 billion investment for the project, and private foundations and public health officials have promised to contribute, too.
The scientific establishment, meanwhile, has been stepping up its lobbying efforts. In recent months, leading public health officials and scientists have penned editorials in leading scientific journals, including Nature and Science, and begun to make the case for a major investment. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, has used his platform to argue the case.
“I believe that we have the capability scientifically to develop one that really covers at least all of the SARS-CoV-2 mutations, but also the entire spectrum of the family of coronaviruses,” Fauci said at a public event in February. Then, referring to MERS, which killed about one-third of those who caught it, SARS1, which killed up to 10 percent of its victims, and COVID-19, which has so far caused more than 3 million deaths around the world, he warned: “We got hit with three in 18 years that have been either pandemic or pandemic potential, so shame on us if we don’t develop the universal coronavirus vaccine.”
Humans develop immunity to an invading virus when the body learns to recognize unique shapes formed by the proteins on the pathogen’s surface, and then starts producing cellular-level sentinels, known as antibodies, that seek out those specific shapes, glom on to them and keep them in check until other immune cells can arrive to destroy the pathogen they belong to.
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