The Science Ponders Universal Coronavirus Vaccine for All Future Variants

Next phase: Inject everyone with everything, forever.

The Guardian:

This week the government announced additional vaccine booster jabs for the over-75s and suggested a further shot is likely to be needed in the autumn. But imagine if the next Covid vaccine jab you have were the last you would ever need. That’s a dream being actively pursued now by researchers, who feel it could be possible to make a “universal” vaccine against the Sars-CoV-2 virus that would work well not only against all existing variants but any that the virus could plausibly mutate into in the future.

Some are thinking even bigger. In January, Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, and two other experts called for more research into “universal coronavirus vaccines” that would work not only against Sars-CoV-2 but against the many other coronaviruses in animal populations that have the potential to spill over into humans and cause future pandemics. “We need a research approach that can characterise the global ‘coronaviral universe’ in multiple species,” Fauci and colleagues wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “and apply this information in developing broadly protective ‘universal’ vaccines against all [coronaviruses].”

Is that just a fantasy? Not necessarily. After all, many considered it fanciful, when the pandemic began, that we’d have a vaccine against Covid-19 in less than a year. But experience has proved that “we as a research community can pull together and do remarkable things,” says Larry Corey, a virologist and vaccine expert at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Larry Corey is a man who knows exactly what The Science wants.

At the moment we have no pan-variant vaccine for any endemic virus. Researchers have long dreamed of a universal vaccine that would make flu epidemics less lethal, and there are now promising signs that it could be possible. The design principle for a universal Covid vaccine would follow similar lines.

One option might be to prime the immune system to recognise not just one bit of a viral protein, but lots of bits – not all of which are likely to change (or change significantly) at once in any new variant. We’d give the immune system many different ways to spot, and then suppress, the invader, in the hope that one will work. This might involve, for example, making an mRNA vaccine that contains many different RNA molecules, each encoding as a different protein fragment. Or a single particle in the vaccine could hold several different fragments.

Alternatively, you can look for parts of the virus that seem to be “conserved” across variants: proteins (or bits of them) that don’t mutate much at all, presumably because such changes would be too detrimental to the virus. But how can you know what those will be, even for variants that haven’t emerged yet? One way is to see if highly conserved protein regions exist already among a whole family of related coronaviruses. “If you can find things that are in common between Sars-CoV-2, Sars [the related respiratory virus that caused alarm in 2003], and a bunch of other animal coronaviruses, then the likelihood is that the next variant of Sars-CoV-2 will have them too,” says Skip Virgin, chief scientific officer of San Francisco-based Vir Biotechnologies, which is working with GlaxoSmithKline on vaccine development – a collaboration that has already produced the monoclonal antibody sotrovimab for alleviating Covid symptoms.

At the moment, researchers are mostly striving for the relatively modest target of hitting just a subset of the coronavirus universe: typically, to stimulate an immune response against a part of the spike protein, called the receptor binding domain (RBD), shared by Sars, Sars-CoV-2 and closely related bat coronaviruses. The RBD is the part of the spike protein that latches on to the host cells. Although some of the variants have small mutations in their RBD, its chemical structure doesn’t change much: create a strong immune response to the RBD and it should work against any virus in this family.

Of course, no one can be sure what the fiendishly ingenious Covid-19 virus has in store for the future. “The first axiom of infectious disease is, never underestimate your pathogen,” says Corey. “The rapidity with which we’ve got four major variants in two and a half years is unprecedented and surprising. One wouldn’t bet against this virus.”

They’re not even really telling you that this is a genetic engineering program. They somehow manage to skip over those words.