CHICAGO — While experts agree that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have proven to be extremely effective, scientists around the world are trying to build a better vaccine. A universal vaccine that targets multiple coronavirus families could help prevent another outbreak, according to some.
One thing we’ve learned about fighting the pandemic is that as a virus circulates among the unvaccinated, more infectious variants like delta can emerge.
Although initial data indicate that current vaccines remain highly effective, scientists from around the globe are still trying to create a universal vaccine which could protect against new variants of coronaviruses and potentially prevent future pandemics.
“These vaccines that we have right now are tremendously effective. They have saved thousands of lives. But the question is, can we make them better?” asked Northwestern University associate professor of microbiology and immunology Pablo Penaloza-MacMaster.
“Different variants and even different strains of coronaviruses. They mutate their spike code protein so that they can deceive the immune system,” said Penaloza-MacMaster.
He believes that vaccines are currently targeting the spike protein (the outer structure that allows for viral entry into the host cells). But because of its ability to mutate and outfox the immune system, it’s also a moving target.
“So, we’re trying to find other targets that we could teach the immune system how to work on like this protein, which is expressed in the inside of the virus; it’s called the nucleocapsid,” he said.
His team published a study that showed that not only targeting spike protein, but also the virus’ inner guts could offer greater protection and prevent breakthrough cases.
“These are responses that can recognize different coronaviruses, not only SARS-CoV-2,” said Penaloza-MacMaster.
They also wanted to check for cross-protections. To see if it would offer protection from SARS-CoV-2 they immunized mice with the 2004 strain.
“To our surprise, we saw that the mice were also protected from SARS-CoV-2. So, that shows a proof of concept that a SARS1 vaccine could not only protect against SARS1, but also SARS2,” said Penaloza-MacMaster.
COVID-19, one of seven human coronaviruses, is not the only one.
A vaccine development foundation from Norway has donated $200 million to scientists who are working to develop a universal vaccine. It’s taking applications until the end of this month.
“I think one realistic outcome is that we could develop at least one prototypical vaccine that protects against multiple coronaviruses,” said Penaloza-MacMaster.
Researchers from the University of California-Irvine and UNC Chapel Hill are currently studying universal protection.
It’s a quest to develop one shot to rule them all.