Proactive > Reactive: Science Targets Universal Coronavirus Vaccine

Illustration of Coronavirus vaccine

Illustration of Coronavirus vaccine 

While the "speed of science" to develop a successful coronavirus vaccine against the novel coronavirus has been record-setting, scientists are telling us it's not enough. As this clever virus mutates, its variants are outsmarting our previously effective vaccines. 

Vaccine makers are rushing to tailor formulations to match the current variants, but the daily case numbers are already plummeting by the time these are being tested. Yet the dropping numbers doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet. Instead, the world waits with bated breath for the latest mutation to be discovered and cause the next surge of cases. 

With a new variant rearing its head roughly every six months, it's time for a less reactive approach and a more proactive response. Tailoring the existing coronavirus vaccine to match each variant is not sustainable based on the current mutation trends. 

As a viral immunologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill David Martinez said, "You don't want to play this whack-a-mole approach." 

What About the Universal Coronavirus Vaccine?

Thus, a cry goes out for a universal coronavirus vaccine. After the initial success of the COVID-19 vaccines, some companies began dreaming extra big, envisioning a shot that could protect against multiple coronaviruses and combat future strains that could jump from bat to human. But in the face of the ever-evolving virus we're already facing, the more practical aim is now a bit lower – a vaccine that protects against all current and future variants of SARS-CoV-2 for a longer time. A variant-proof vaccine. 

With 50 genetic mutations compared to the original strain, Omicron exposed the need for an all-protective jab and science is working hard to answer the call. While the first generation of coronavirus vaccines worked by teaching the immune system to recognize the spike protein, a broader, universal version would require more. 

At UNC, Martinez's team is working on a vaccine that would present the immune system with many-sided "chimeric" spikes. Using fragments from SARS-CoV-2, the original 2003 SARS virus, and another piece from a bat coronavirus, this mRNA vaccine would teach the immune system to recognize and attack multiple versions of coronavirus. 

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania are also working on a universal vaccine. 

Dr. Drew Weissman is leading the team and said, "The problem with chasing variants is by the time you've made a vaccine, the variant is gone and a new variant appears." 

Weissman started working on this idea in 2020. He says finding the common antigen is key for developing a coronavirus vaccine that can cross-react with hundreds of thousands of different viruses. The team has identified a "couple," two of which have been published and showed broad protection. They've already developed two potential universal vaccine candidates. They're not stopping there, though, because Weissman believes they may have to mix vaccines to get the best protection possible. Clinical trials are hopeful of initiating in the next 12-18 months. 

The U.S. Army is also waging war against the virus, beginning in-human trials just last month of a pan-coronavirus vaccine. Scientists at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland created a vaccine that can recognize multiple spike proteins at once by using ferritin, an iron-based protein. Using ferritin in a pan-coronavirus vaccine, the nanoparticle can produce an array of varying antigens not just from SARS-CoV-2 variants but other coronavirus species and strains. 

John C. Maxwell says we either spend our lives preparing through a proactive approach or repairing with a reactive approach. 

The reactive approach is exhausting, trying to tackle each new variant after it appears. A proactive approach would master not only today's problem but also the future variants of the next few years. Studies have found that even mild COVID-19 infections can lead to lasting damage and lingering effects. The best defense remains prevention on a broader, longer-lasting scale. 

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