COVID is here for the long haul — we need a variant-proof vaccine

The pandemic has entered a new phase. The emergence of the highly mutated omicron variant, now spreading like wildfire, underscores the ruthless opportunism of the virus — and the fact that COVID-19 is here to stay. 

While early evidence of reduced severity is welcome, omicron’s phenomenal evolutionary success is a harbinger of a worrying future in which new variants will continue to emerge periodically. Some will have the potential to cause new waves of infection globally — essentially new pandemics — as they progressively evolve away from the strains targeted by existing vaccines. 

This is hardly unprecedented.  We observe similar rapid viral evolution in another common disease, influenza. What is becoming clear is that in the years ahead we will have to contend with two globally circulating viruses — influenza and SARS-CoV-2 — both with the potential to cause pandemics at any time.  

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That should scare us, but also prompt us into action.  

It is time for scientists and policymakers to double down on research and take advantage of recent advances in vaccinology, with the goal of developing broadly protective or “variant-proof” vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 and, ultimately, other coronaviruses.  

Vaccines that protect against multiple variants would allow us to get ahead of the virus so we are ready for future mutations before they emerge. The alternative is to continually chase the virus, developing vaccines against specific variants only after they have begun to spread. This is not a desirable or sustainable long-term strategy for a world in which COVID-19 is endemic. 

The need for better, more broadly protective, more durable vaccines is clear. But if we want them, we must invest in the research and development to produce them. Making such investments shouldn’t be a hard choice for forward-thinking governments.  

Coronaviruses have proven their deadly potential. We know they circulate widely in animals and have the potential to jump species. What is more, the next disease outbreak could be significantly worse than COVID-19. Its closely related cousins SARS and MERS, for example, are respectively 20 and 70 times more lethal. Fortunately, they are less transmissible than COVID-19, but there is no guarantee the next coronavirus will be. 

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Developing broadly protective vaccines will not be easy. While current COVID-19 vaccines work by generating antibodies to neutralize the changeable spike protein that the virus uses to enter human cells, broadly protective vaccines will need to target components of the virus that stimulate the immune system but do not mutate. Ideally, a broadly protective vaccine would provide immunity that endures for years or even a lifetime. Such a vaccine would dramatically reduce and perhaps even eliminate the risk of future coronavirus pandemics. 

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), where I am CEO, is among those pioneering this vital work, along with funders including the National Institutes of Health. Developing variant-proof SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and broadly protective coronavirus vaccines should be pursued as a shared global endeavor, and the more parties that are involved, the faster we’ll make progress. 

Importantly, the effort must go hand in hand with ensuring global access to such products, so that tomorrow’s vaccines protect the world without creating terrible inequalities. This is essential if we are to catch future outbreaks as close to the source as possible and vaccinate people early before such episodes become a global emergency. 

Last year CEPI launched a $200 million program to support the development of vaccines providing broad protection against SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses. Some of that funding is already being put to work across projects with industry and academic groups, and further awards will be announced in the coming weeks. 

These programs are part of CEPI’s ambitious five-year strategy: a $3.5 billion plan to systematically reduce the risk of pandemics. CEPI will host a summit in March to raise funds for this vital work, providing an opportunity for the United States and other governments to support the goal of variant-proofing the world.  

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There are grounds for optimism. Throughout the pandemic, good science paired with rapid research and development has been the one element of the global response that has consistently delivered. Vaccines have been deployed at a previously unimaginable scale and speed, with over 9 billion vaccine doses administered around the world in 2021. 

But omicron is a reminder that the pandemic is far from over — and we need new tools as we prepare to live alongside this virus for the long term. The time to invest is now. 

Richard Hatchett, MD, is the CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and former acting director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).