As vaccines roll out across the globe to protect against COVID-19 and its known variants, researchers around the world are in a race to find a universal vaccine that could protect against the current strain of the coronavirus as well as future ones.
The U.S. Army started Phase 1 clinical trials this week of a vaccine called Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle (SpFN) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in Silver Spring, Md.
Doctors at the Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch (EIDB) at WRAIR say the multi-faced sphere design of the vaccine is different from other vaccines already in use but they believe it could help provide broader protection against future strains of coronavirus.
“It’s not just one spike protein that is being presented to your immune system. It’s multiple spike proteins decorated around a symmetric particle,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of the EIDB and co-inventor of the vaccine.
Pre-clinical trials show that SpFN induced broad neutralizing antibody responses against the virus that causes COVID-19 infection, as well as three major SARS CoV-2 variants and SARS-CoV-1 virus, the strain that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
“The immune response that’s being educated is being educated very broadly,” Modjarrad told Global news in a recent interview.
The properties of the SpFN vaccine make it look like a virus so that the immune system develops a better antibody response and gives the patient more protection against a number of strains of the virus.
“It’s only the first step towards getting a universal coronavirus vaccine that will take on other coronaviruses, including those that cause the common cold.”
Led by Dr. Volker Gerdts, researchers at Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan have also been working on a universal coronavirus vaccine for years.
Gerdts believes we need to stay one step ahead of the next pandemic by trying to predict what the next deadly pathogen may be. One idea is to develop an effective vaccine against that pathogen and then stockpile it.
“And whenever a new disease emerges, a plane could take off with 10, 20, 50 million doses on board. And you could try to contain this disease as early as possible and therefore avoid this global spread,” Gerdts told Global News.
As futuristic as that may sound, Gerdts believes computers can help to predict what the next virus may look like. Artificial intelligence is what helped map the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Wayne Koff, founder and CEO of the Human Vaccines Project has been one of the leading voices lobbying for a universal coronavirus vaccine.
Koff believes it will take a multidisciplinary set of skills in human immunology and artificial intelligence to create a vaccine that could protect against the wide range of coronaviruses.
“You have the AI and machine learning skills, along with the antigen discovery and vaccine discovery skills on walking down the entire virus and asking, ‘can we identify the Achilles heel or the Achilles heels of the virus,’” said Koff.
A similar effort was underway following the SARS outbreak of 2003, when researcher Maria Elena Bottazzi at the Baylor College of medicine started working on a pan-coronavirus vaccine. In 2016 her team applied for financial support to develop a vaccine but did not receive it.
In fact, her team even lost funding for a SARS vaccine it had been developing which showed promising results in mice but without the financial support they were not able to transition it to a clinical setting.
“The priority on coronaviruses was dying down, there were other priorities out there, as you know, between Ebola and Zika,” Bottazzi told Global News adding, “I think there was a little bit of a loss of memory that coronaviruses could return and that they return so quickly.”
However with COVID-19 and its variants spreading across the globe forcing renewed shutdowns of economies, many believe now is the time to revisit the idea and reinvest in a universal coronavirus vaccine. Especially when you consider how countries and scientists have been able to develop effective vaccines over the last twelve months, when the process normally takes years.
“We take our success with what we have now on the vaccines that have been made and we ask how do we broaden them?” Koff said.
Researchers agree those next steps will take time, money and political will. However, scientists believe it’s worth putting in the effort now, before the next pandemic hits.
“It’s almost like your insurance policy. You invest in these vaccines. You have them ready at a stage where you can quickly deploy them if you need them. That costs you millions and millions of dollars to do it, but it’s better than dealing with trillions of dollars in losses when the disease hits,” says Gerdts.