The scientific quest for a universal coronavirus vaccine received a boost on Wednesday, as three leading federal researchers, including Dr.Anthony Fauci, charted a course to develop new vaccines that could fight a variety of illnesses, including COVID-19, certain colds and future viruses.
Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Fauci and two colleagues said the virus that causes COVID-19 is unlikely to be eliminated, and current vaccines are too limited to prevent the emergence of new variants. Other coronaviruses are also likely to spread from animals to become future pandemic threats, they wrote.
To overcome these problems, the authors argue that the research community should “fully engage” in the development of a “second generation” of coronavirus vaccines that would offer broad protection across the genetic spectrum of coronaviruses. They suggest forming an international effort to collect animal coronavirus samples around the world and developing ethical challenge trials for coronaviruses, among other measures.
Over the past two decades, the world has experienced four deadly coronavirus outbreaks, including two episodes of SARS in the early 2000s, the emergence of MERS in 2012 and now COVID-19, which has killed more than 800,000 Americans. .
The commentary does not offer a quick fix to the pandemic. But Fauci’s endorsement of the universal vaccine approach could serve as a bugle call and a blueprint for scientists.
“It’s a good track record,” Pablo Penaloza-MacMaster, viral immunologist and assistant professor at Northwestern University, said of the article. “This creates a certain scientific clarity: what are the specific obstacles to the development of universal vaccines? “
For years, researchers have been chasing so-called universal vaccines. Scientists have been testing universal influenza vaccines for more than a decade, with the goal of providing long-lasting protection that would not require an annual influenza vaccine. The first human clinical trial for a universal influenza vaccine started in 2019; a vaccine has not yet reached the market.
The new document is not the first instance in which Fauci mentions the importance of a universal vaccine for coronaviruses. But the emergence of highly mutated variants like omicron, which could compromise the level of protection offered by available vaccines, has made the search for a long-term solution more urgent.
the The National Institutes of Health announced in September that it had invested more than $ 36 million in academic efforts towards vaccines that could neutralize many coronaviruses.
“We are definitely making this a high priority,” Fauci told the Washington Post this month. “There are fundamental scientific challenges before we can really get a full press on this. It’s not like you have a clear path to a product and all you need to do is put more resources into it.
To develop a universal vaccine, Fauci, Dr David Morens and Dr Jeffery Taubenberger suggest creating an international collaborative effort to collect samples from animals like bats, palm civets and raccoon dogs, which are frequent hosts, or reservoirs, of coronaviruses that could jump to people.
Sequencing the genomes of these viruses could help researchers identify new threats and uncover commonalities between coronaviruses that a new vaccine could then target.
The authors – all of whom are senior doctors at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – also suggest more research on other coronaviruses suspected of causing pandemics long ago, before they became epidemics. permanent elements that cause colds.
Scientists are also expected to find cellular targets common to many coronaviruses that vaccines could help attack, identify candidate vaccines that boost long-term immune responses, and determine the best way to test in animals, the document said.
Universal vaccine testing in human challenge studies will also be important, the authors say. This type of research could speed up vaccine development, but it’s ethically complicated because it involves intentionally infecting people to test a vaccine.
While many scientists view human provocation studies for COVID-19 as unethical because of their severity, it might be possible to design studies responsible for viruses that cause the common cold or some other proxy. The researchers have conducted provocation studies in influenza trials.
Developing a universal vaccine against the coronavirus “appears to be feasible,” Penaloza-MacMaster said. His own research indicated that existing vaccines could protect mice against coronaviruses that were not the original target.
But achieving a universal coronavirus vaccine could take years, Penaloza-MacMaster said. It might also require more than one vaccine to cover different families of coronaviruses, he said, because mice received more protection against viruses that were more genetically similar.
The newspaper’s proposal is ambitious.
Collecting viral samples from bat caves, animal markets, and people who interact with these creatures “requires a lot of work” and requires strong biosecurity precautions to ensure the virus cannot accidentally jump out. to humans.
“You have people going to the caves where the bats are. You don’t want spillovers, ”said Penaloza-MacMaster.
At least a half-dozen research groups are already evaluating universal vaccine candidates and researching the best parts of the coronaviruses to target, he said.
Current coronavirus vaccines made by Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson target the spike protein, which Penaloza-MacMaster calls the “Achilles heel” of the virus, although this is also a part that is susceptible to mutating and mutating. ‘to evolve.
Penaloza-MacMaster’s lab is working on a vaccine that targets proteins “in the guts of the virus,” he said, while other labs are evaluating a nanoparticle vaccine, which contains several cutting-edge proteins from different virus.
“It’s kind of like throwing in the kitchen sink” for the immune system to recognize, said Penaloza-MacMaster.
He added that he hopes Fauci’s approval of a universal vaccine will advance efforts and further boost government support.
“In the face of an impending pandemic, it’s good to have eggs in different baskets. Not all approaches will work, ”he said.
This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.