Second Opinion: What Does It Take to Make a Universal COVID Vaccine?


As California emerges from Omicron, other locations are again locked down or faced vinyl record case numbers after trying and failing to avoid the variant. Many of us who did everything right, got every shot and booster, and avoided crowds, still got infected.

The persistence of COVID may push us to make a concession to justice live with the virus. But that seems defeatist and is dangerous. Highly infectious variants broke out from parts of the world that still have low vaccination rates and high population densities. New research results accelerated cognitive decline and Cardiovascular problems even after mild COVID infections. Over a dozen animal species They are now known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, setting the stage for new mutations. We now need a new approach to defeat future waves of this virus and other viruses that may emerge.

This points to a lifelong, durable and broadly protective vaccine. What does it take to develop one? It’s going to be a tough road, but it’s possible. Success will require two principles that the world has not yet sufficiently understood in fighting this virus: a short-term focus on the long-term, and a sustainable structure and support for collaboration.

One challenge is that there are so many viral sequences that the vaccine must protect against, originating not only from new SARS-CoV-2 variants, but also from the multitude of other coronaviruses that may yet spread to humans. The first-generation mRNA vaccines, which teach the body to recognize the spike protein portion of the virus and trigger an immune response, encode a strain of the virus that is no longer circulating. Because this protein is so prone to mutation, making it difficult for the body to detect future variants, a more universal vaccine must target parts of the virus shared by multiple viruses in the family — often essential components that are less likely to mutate.

Unfortunately, these parts are often less perceptible to the immune system. Science has since found better ways to elicit a more effective immune response to the spike protein and better ways to engineer and image this protein itself, but finding the right combination of the different strategies requires coordination.

And we’re not sure if the mRNA format, which has emerged as a vaccine strategy after decades of development, is best suited against the next emerging pathogen compared to other vaccine approaches such as using nanoparticles, which allow for more options for vaccine formulations, weakened or killed viruses or viral vectors that contain a greater variety of molecules and can trigger protective viral recognition mechanisms.

To manage this complexity, we need all kinds of experts – including the development of novel vaccine formats, to elicit an effective, long-lasting immune response, and to understand the vaccine components that prompt the immune cells to act. We need experts who understand how antibodies not only inactivate the virus, but also recruit an army of complementary immune cells to clear the pathogen from the body. We also need preclinical modeling experts to help us understand which vaccine candidates to advance into human trials and how to measure their success. And we need experts in large-scale vaccine production, cost and distribution logistics.

Each of these hurdles is being tackled by different groups of scientists, each working in a different discipline and location. The right vaccines are unlikely to be made by one group or company alone, but will be the result of a concerted effort of many approaches that overcome different variables. Therefore, researchers worldwide need to collaborate on scale and style Manhattan project to build a permanent solution. Since the researchers have already come up with better solutions than the approaches at the beginning of 2020, they can start well with them. Many labs are already following different routes to a universal vaccine.

However, the scientific enterprise is based on competition, not mass collaboration, regardless of your individual career. Competition has advantages: it encourages innovation and drives us to achieve results faster and to deliver a better result or product than that of our competitors. The downside is the lack of sharing – of results, samples and key insights. Competition for limited funds and the need to publish results first can lead to isolation and a focus on quick results rather than thorough results.

It is easy to call for sharing and coordination, but without structures to support and encourage researchers, the call will be ignored. We both know this firsthand: we’ve been involved in building large, multidisciplinary collaborations between competitors to solve research problems that no single lab could tackle alone. This required the creation and revision of systems to simultaneously develop and evaluate competing ideas or treatments, aided by data-driven machine learning approaches that evaluated outcomes on an equal footing. These approaches made it possible to understand why some antibodies were protective and others were not, and which laboratory experiments best identified the treatments that would be successful in humans.

Our collaborative approaches have worked because they have built individual labs to succeed while contributing to the common good. Participating laboratory researchers needed to produce publishable articles from the projects so that the contribution of their time and effort would advance their careers rather than cost them. They also needed intellectual property protection so they could participate and share, alongside funding to support work on a larger scale or at greater depth than their current funding sources would allow.

Meanwhile, companies giving access to their researchers and materials needed a tangible benefit: They would receive valuable data that they could use for new drug approvals, and the consortium’s work would open new doors for their products. The federal and philanthropic backers of these projects have also gotten bang for their buck: a body of knowledge that has broken down barriers and advanced the field as a whole.

Motivating philanthropic and state funders will be critical to developing longer-lasting, broadly protective vaccines. Because vaccines don’t typically bring in a lot of money — a good lifelong vaccine can be given once, and for much of the world it must be donated — federal governments and large philanthropic organizations have to shoulder most of the investment.

You may not feel motivated to proceed at the moment: while the US government and other funders were driven by a sense of imminent crisis at the beginning of the pandemic, the focus is now on widespread reopening. You may be less willing to prevent what now feels like a potential crisis. Funding and interest in developing vaccines against SARS-CoV-1 dating back to 2003 scattered after the virus disappeared; We could have used that in 2020 knowledge and drugs that would have turned out.

Putting the ongoing health risks of COVID aside, the economic case for more investment in vaccines is hard to argue with. The cost of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is estimated 16 trillion dollars, or nearly 90% of US GDP. Rather the cost of developing a typical vaccine 1 billion dollars, is 0.006% of it. Even a $10 billion vaccine is tiny compared to the impact of the pandemic. We cannot afford not to do better.

Erica Ollmann Saphire is President, CEO and Professor at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. Edward Scolnick is Core Fellow Emeritus at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and former Head of R&D at Merck Research Laboratories. Second Opinion: What Does It Take to Make a Universal COVID Vaccine?

Caroline Bleakley

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