New universal COVID-19 vaccine may help prevent future pandemics

Gurugram COVID-19 vaccination
People queue to get vaccinated against Covid-19 at UPHC Sector 49, on June 22, 2021 in Gurugram, India. (Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Scientists have developed a universal vaccine that protected mice not just against COVID-19 but also other coronaviruses while triggering the immune system to fight off a dangerous variant.

While no one knows which virus may cause the next outbreak, researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) in the US noted that coronaviruses remain a threat after causing the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

To prevent a future coronavirus pandemic, the team designed the vaccine to provide protection from the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and a group of coronaviruses known to make the jump from animals to humans.

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The study, published in the journal Science, looked at a second-generation vaccine: one that targets sarbecoviruses.

Sarbecoviruses, part of the large family of coronaviruses, are a priority for virologists after two caused devastating disease in the past two decades: SARS and COVID-19.

The team's approach started with mRNA preventive, which is similar to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used today.

However, instead of including the mRNA code for only one virus, they welded together mRNA from multiple coronaviruses.

When given to mice, the hybrid vaccine effectively generated neutralising antibodies against multiple spike proteins — which viruses use to latch onto healthy cells — including one associated with B.1.351 variant, which was first identified in South Africa.

“The vaccine has the potential to prevent outbreaks when used as a new variant is detected,” said study lead author Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

The research includes data from mice infected with SARS-CoV and related coronaviruses and the vaccine prevented infection and lung damage in mice.

Additional testing could lead to human clinical trials next year, the researchers said.

“Our findings look bright for the future because they suggest we can design more universal pan coronavirus vaccines to proactively guard against viruses we know are at risk for emerging in humans,” said another lead author David Martinez, a postdoctoral researcher at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“With this strategy, perhaps we can prevent a SARS-CoV-3,” Martinez said.

With inputs from PTI