May 25, 2024

Scientists have created a vaccine that has the potential to protect against a wide range of coronaviruses, including varieties not even known yet.

The experimental shot, tested in mice, signals a change in strategy toward “proactive vaccinology,” where vaccines are designed and ready for manufacturing before a potential pandemic virus emerges.

The vaccine is made by attaching harmless proteins from different coronaviruses to tiny nanoparticles that are then injected to challenge the body’s defenses to fight the viruses should they ever invade.

Because the vaccine trains the immune system to target proteins shared across many different types of coronavirus, the protection it induces is extremely broad, making it effective against known and unknown viruses in the same family.

“We have shown that a relatively simple vaccine can still produce a widespread response across a range of different viruses,” said Rory Hills, a graduate researcher at the University of Cambridge and first author of the report. “This takes us one step forward toward our goal of creating vaccines before a pandemic even begins.”

Tests in mice showed that the vaccine induced a broad immune response to coronaviruses, including Sars-Cov-1, the pathogen that caused the 2003 Sars outbreak, even though proteins from that virus were not added to the vaccine nanoparticles. Details of the work, a collaboration between the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and the California Institute of Technology, are published in Nature Nanotechnology.

The universal coronavirus vaccine could be made in existing microbial fermentation facilities, Hills said, adding that the researchers are working with industrial partners on ways to scale up the process. The nanoparticles and viral proteins can be made at different times in different places and mixed together to produce the vaccine.

Medical regulators do not have procedures for proactive vaccinology and the researchers say this will have to be worked out with the bodies involved. If the vaccine is found to be safe and effective in humans, one option would be to use it as a Covid booster with the added benefit of protecting against other coronaviruses.

More likely, countries will stockpile the vaccine, and others designed to target separate pathogens, once they are manufactured and approved. “In the event that a coronavirus or other pathogen crosses over, you can have pre-existing vaccine stocks ready and a clear plan to quickly scale up production if needed,” Hills said.

Prof Mark Howarth, a senior author of the study, said: “Scientists did an excellent job of rapidly producing a highly effective Covid vaccine during the last pandemic, but the world still faced a massive crisis with a large number of deaths. We need to work out how we can do even better in the future, and a powerful component of that is to build the vaccines in advance.”

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