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. Some say a more universal vaccine targeting multiple families of coronavirus could prevent another outbreak.
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.
And while initial data suggest the current crop of vaccines remains highly effective, scientists around the world are trying to create a universal vaccine that could protect against emerging variants and possibly prevent future coronavirus pandemics.
“These vaccines that we have right now are tremendously effective. They have saved millions 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 says the spike protein, the outer structure, responsible for viral entry into the host cell is what the current crop of vaccines targets. 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.
He and his team recently published a study showing that targeting not only the spike protein but also the inner guts of the virus could provide broader protection and help prevent breakthrough cases.
“These are responses that can recognize different coronaviruses, not only SARS-CoV-2,” said Penaloza-MacMaster.
They also wanted to test for cross-protections. They immunized mice against the 2004 strain of SARS-CoV-1 to see if that would offer any protection from SARS-CoV-2.
“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 is just one of seven known human coronaviruses.
With more of these viruses likely to jump into the human population in the coming years, a vaccine development foundation out of Norway is giving $200 million to scientists working on 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 at the University of California-Irvine, UNC Chapel Hill, and the University of Virginia are already testing or studying universal protection.
It’s a quest to develop one shot to rule them all.