Where are the universal coronavirus vaccines?

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The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was not the first to wreak havoc on humanity – six other coronaviruses have jumped from animals to humans, and two of them (SARS and MERS) cause serious diseases. Are.

It is almost certain that we will encounter other dangerous coronaviruses in the future, so some researchers are trying to tackle the problem by developing vaccines that can protect against it. All Coronaviruses, including those that do not yet exist.

vaccine thief

When a virus infects you, certain parts of it – called “antigens” – will attract the attention of your immune system, prompting the body to make antibodies and T cells that specifically recognize and neutralize that virus. are designed to help.

Vaccines introduce antigens in a way that does not cause infection, but still triggers the immune system. If the actual virus ever enters your body in the future, the immune system will immediately launch an attack to protect you from infection.

By the time boosters reach people, a different variant may already be growing.

While some vaccines, such as those for measles, provide lifelong protection, that is not the case with our COVID-19 shots. That’s partly because, unlike the measles virus, this coronavirus regularly mutates into new variants as it spreads from person to person.

Mutations in the spike protein of the coronavirus – the antigen used for COVID-19 vaccines – may prevent our immune system from effectively neutralizing the virus, leading to infection. Variants with those mutations can then spread more easily and overcome older variants.

Currently, the best way to address this is through regular booster shots that, like the seasonal flu shot, are updated to match recent variants. But the virus is mutating so rapidly that by the time the FDA decides which variant to target and vaccine makers design, test and manufacture boosters, a different variant may already be on the rise .

In addition to the continued drift of COVID-19 through mutation, there is always the threat of a new pandemic from a different coronavirus, such as SARS or MERS, which could spread from animals to humans.

universal coronavirus vaccines

Rather than continue playing catch-up, researchers at the University of Cambridge want to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine, meaning one that will not only work against all strains of COVID-19, but also against . All Coronavirus.

“In nature, there are a lot of viruses that are waiting for an accident to happen,” said lead researcher Jonathan Heaney. “We wanted to come up with a vaccine that would protect against not just SARS-CoV-2, but all of its relatives.”

The vaccine they created has already proven capable of generating a strong immune response in mice, rabbits and guinea pigs against different types of coronaviruses – including all known variants of the COVID-19 virus, and They are already testing it in people. ,

“This technology combines lessons learned from nature’s mistakes and aims to save us from the future.”

jonathan heaney

Rather than use an existing antigen – such as the spike protein of the coronavirus – for their vaccine, the Cambridge team designed their own antigen, called “T2_17”, using synthetic biology techniques.

To determine what this antigen should look like, they studied the spike proteins of several different coronaviruses, focusing on a part of the virus that is essential for replication, known as the receptor binding domain (RBD). Known in.

Using computer simulations, they identified parts of the RBD that were unlikely to mutate in the future. Armed with that information, they designed an “optimized” antigen for their vaccine.

“This opens the door to vaccines against viruses we don’t know about yet.”

jonathan heaney

During their preclinical studies, they demonstrated how this antigen could be used with three types of vaccines – a DNA vaccine, an mRNA vaccine and a viral vector vaccine – to protect against all known COVID-19 viruses. , to trigger a protective immune response against the SARS virus. , and other major coronaviruses.

A needle-free DNA vaccine based on the T2_17 antigen has been in Phase 1 safety trials since December 2021, where it is being tested as a booster for people who have already been vaccinated against COVID-19. In April 2023, the trial was expanded to include a second UK city.

“Unlike existing vaccines, which use wild-type viruses or parts of viruses that have caused trouble in the past, this technology combines lessons learned from nature’s mistakes and is aimed at helping us in the future,” Heaney said. To be saved from.”

He added, “These customized synthetic antigens generate broad immune responses, targeted at key sites on the virus that cannot easily change.” “This opens the door to vaccines against viruses we don’t know about yet.”

looking ahead

The Cambridge team isn’t the only group hoping we could replace annual COVID-19 boosters with a universal coronavirus vaccine.

Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute are developing a vaccine focused on a part of the spike protein called the S2 subunit, which they have determined is less likely to mutate than other parts of the protein.

Like the Cambridge group, researchers at UK startup BaseImmune designed their own antigens for a universal coronavirus vaccine, combining bits of existing proteins and ones invented by their AI platform — that shot is currently in the preclinical stage of development. Is.

“Universal vaccines can provide… [vital] Protection against serious disease from the next pandemic.”

karin bok

While at the University of North Carolina, immunologist David Martinez, now an assistant professor at Yale University, led the development of an mRNA vaccine that teaches the body to make a custom-designed antigen based on the spike proteins of four coronaviruses . That shot is also in preclinical trials.

Meanwhile, a team at Caltech has packaged RBDs from eight different coronaviruses into a “mosaic” vaccine, and in mouse tests, it provides protection against those coronaviruses and four others. In 2022, they received $30 million from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to prepare the vaccine for clinical trials.

CalTech’s “mosaic” vaccine contains pieces of multiple coronaviruses. Credit: A. Cohen/BioRender

Even if any of these vaccines perform well against past and present coronaviruses in trials, it will be impossible to know whether they can protect against Future Coronavirus until those viruses actually start to emerge.

Hopefully, universal shots could prevent such viruses from ever spreading, but even if they can’t, they could buy us time to develop more effective vaccines specifically tailored to those future coronaviruses.

“When we think about pandemic preparedness, the thing we’re most concerned about are the first few months before a vaccine is ready,” said Karin Bock, a vaccine researcher at the National Institutes of Health. ” “Universal vaccines can provide… [vital] Protection against serious disease from the next pandemic.”

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