Scientists Hope to Save World From Next Pandemic With Work on Universal Coronavirus Vaccine

Researchers hope to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine to help prevent a new pandemic that could be even more deadly than the current global health crisis.

Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is bringing hope for an end to the pandemic but scientists remain concerned about the possibility of a fresh coronavirus pandemic. In addition to SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the coronavirus family includes many other viruses that can infect humans. Although most common coronaviruses result in relatively mild cold-like illnesses, a new virus that is both very fatal and highly contagious could emerge at any time.

Scientists are taking different approaches to developing a vaccine that could be effective against coronaviruses that have yet to emerge. Since coronaviruses are zoonotic, one approach involves cataloguing all of the viruses in animals before they jump to human populations, developing a host of vaccines to be effective against all of the different strains. Another approach aims to develop a single vaccine that could be effective against any coronavirus.

Viruses like SARS-CoV2 are called coronaviruses due to distinct the crown-like "spike" proteins that each share in some form. Current COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, along with several other companies from around the world, all produce antibodies that target the spike protein. A possible universal coronavirus vaccine could be achieved by targeting not only the spike protein, but other proteins that coronaviruses share, some of which look largely the same on each virus.

"That really leads to a much more durable response, not just against variants of SARS, but any other potential future SARS types of viruses," Roderick Slavcev, a University of Waterloo professor and the founder and chief scientific officer of Mediphage, told CBC.

Universal Coronavirus Vaccine
This undated image shows a medical worker drawing a syringe from a vial with a label indicating it contains a coronavirus vaccine. Sangwien/Getty

Slavcev is part of a team working on a DNA vaccine that is officially aimed at COVID-19 but could be useful against any coronavirus because it targets proteins located on the membrane and envelope of the virus in addition to the spike protein. The vaccine, which would be administered as a nasal spray, is currently undergoing testing in animals.

A potential universal vaccine would not provide certain immunity against any form of coronavirus that could emerge, with possible subsequent mutations of the virus providing additional challenges. However, if a universal vaccine is successfully developed it would likely provide at least some protection and could help limit the initial impact of an emerging pandemic.

New strains of the virus that causes COVID-19 remain a concern, but existing vaccines are still somewhat effective against each version that is known to be circulating. However, studies suggest the existing vaccines are significantly less effective against some mutations like the recent variant from South Africa. Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech are both developing booster shots that should improve protection against the new variants, with their mRNA vaccines providing a platform that allows modifications to be made in a relatively short time frame.

"One of the reasons Pfizer and BioNTech chose to utilize a mRNA platform is because of the potential for the flexibility of the technology in comparison to traditional vaccine technologies," a Pfizer spokesperson told Newsweek. "This flexibility includes the ability to alter the RNA sequence in the vaccine to cover new strains of the virus. If one ever were to emerge that is not well covered by the current vaccine, the updated vaccine could be administered as a booster."

"If the virus mutates in a way that an update to our vaccine is required to continue to provide protection against COVID-19 disease, we believe that the flexibility of the mRNA vaccine platform will allow us to move quickly to adjust the vaccine, as needed," they added.

SARS, the predecessor to the virus that caused the ongoing pandemic, infected fewer than 9,000 people globally during an outbreak between 2002 and 2004 but was significantly more deadly than SARS-CoV2, killing around 11 percent of those it infected. Scientists cannot predict how deadly a potential new strain will be.

Professor Michael Houghton, the director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute at the University of Alberta, told CBC that "there's a high probability that we'll get a third strain of related coronavirus" and there is a "need to be better prepared right now."

Newsweek reached out to Moderna for comment.

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Update 2/16, 4:27 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a statement from Pfizer.