Scientists are ramping up research into creating a vaccine that would be effective against all types of coronaviruses as new strains have been reported around the world.
A new report from The New York Times details previous and current efforts to develop a “pancoronavirus” vaccine that would protect against all types of the virus. Past enthusiasm for such a medicine was low as it was commonly believed, before the pandemic, that coronaviruses were not a serious threat and only caused mild colds.
Maria Elena Bottazzi, a Baylor College of Medicine virologist, told the Times of how she and her team had applied for funding from the U.S. government to produce a universal coronavirus vaccine in 2016 but were rejected.
“They said there’s no interest in pancorona,” Bottazzi told the Times. “It’s been a struggle," she added.
The Times notes that before the pandemic, a coronavirus vaccine had never been fully developed. The vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines, which do not contain the virus itself but instead the genetic code for creating spikes found on the surface of the vaccine. This genetic data then teaches the immune system to identify and protect against the coronavirus.
However, this shot is largely only effective against the specific coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that is currently plaguing the globe, and the Times notes that researchers are unsure if creating a new vaccine for every new coronavirus is an effective way to proceed.
VBI Vaccines, a company based in Massachusetts, began looking into creating a universal coronavirus vaccine last summer, the Times reports.
The company created a shot that had three spikes from different types of coronaviruses and found that not only was the shot effective in mice against all three viruses, but an added fourth virus that they had not intended for. VBI’s chief scientific officer David Anderson told the Times that they are currently unsure how an antibody to the fourth virus was created.
Caltech biologist Pamela Bjorkman published the findings from a similar experiment to VBI’s in January, the Times notes. In Bjorkman’s experiment, researcher took parts of the multiple different virus spikes, attaching eight to a nanoparticle. In the animals injected with the nanoparticle, antibodies were created against all eight viruses and an additional four viruses not attached to the nanoparticle.
Dennis Burton and Eric Topol, scientists from the Scripps Research Institute, published an article on Monday appealing for further development of a "pan-virus" vaccine.
"A special class of protective antibodies called broadly neutralizing antibodies (see ‘Pan-virus vaccines’) acts against many different strains of related virus — for example, of HIV, influenza or coronavirus. Such antibodies could be used as first-line drugs to prevent or treat viruses in a given family, including new lineages or strains that have not yet emerged," the researchers write.
"Such pan-virus vaccines could be made in advance and deployed before the next emerging infection becomes a pandemic," they continue. "We call for an investment now in basic research leading to the stockpiling of broadly effective vaccines. As we’ve seen for influenza, one virus strain can cause more deaths than a world war and result in trillions of dollars of economic damage."