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In-Depth: Scientists seek universal vaccine for all coronavirus types

Vaccine could help prevent pandemics
Posted at 6:02 AM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 09:36:03-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - As new variants of the COVID-19 virus crop up worldwide, scientists say there has never been a better time to expand research into a universal coronavirus vaccine.

"We think it would be worth serious investment now," says Dr. Dennis Burton, with the Scripps Research Institute Chair of Immunology and Microbiology.

He and fellow Scripps Research scientist Dr. Eric Topol just published an article in Nature calling for a universal or pancoronavirus vaccine.

Traditionally, Dr. Burton says, vaccine makers tailor each vaccine to a single disease. It's commonly called the "One bug, one-shot" method. That makes it challenging to inoculate people against any mutations that come up. Those usually require a new vaccine or a booster shot.

A pancoronavirus vaccine would theoretically work against all of the disease's different strains and variants, including SARS, MERS, COVID-19, and more.

"You try and look for the parts of the viruses that are kind of constant in the different variants and target those," Dr. Burton explains. "Then you would have a vaccine that was "Pan" all the different variants."

Burton helped develop similar vaccines for HIV to help the immune system build antibodies for thousands of different strains. He'd like to see vaccine makers do the same with coronavirus.

Some are already working on the problem.

A study from the Bjorkman Lab at CalTech recently showed promise for a pancoronavirus vaccine.

Researchers used "mosaic nanoparticles" of several forms of coronavirus spike proteins into a single vaccine in the study.

In lab tests on mice, the vaccines helped the animals build immunity to all of the diseases contained in the shot and similar diseases that weren't included.

"We were able to elicit an immune response that was broad and neutralizing against a wide variety of the SARS-like coronaviruses," says Alex Cohen, the study's lead author.

He says it shows promise that a pancoronavirus vaccine could help people build immunity to versions of the disease that don't yet exist.

Dr. Burton says that's important because recent history shows we're likely to face another coronavirus pandemic. In the last 20 years, the world has seen three major coronavirus-related outbreaks: SARS in 2002-03, MERS in 2012, and COVID-19 in 2019-20.

"The great advantage would be that if you have these pan virus vaccines, you could stockpile them, and you'd be ready for the next pandemic," Dr. Burton says.

The National Institute of Health is trying to encourage more research on the idea. They're offering emergency grants to scientists and labs looking into pancoronavirus vaccines.

Meanwhile, Dr. Burton and Cohen both say it will take more government and private investment to make them a reality.

"I think this pandemic will, at least while it's still fresh in people's minds, will influence people to start investing more in this," says Cohen.

"It's a promising strategy," adds Dr. Burton. "It could protect us against a number of different viruses with a minimal number of vaccines."