NIH scientists urge pursuit of universal coronavirus vaccine 

Physician-scientists of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine which suggests that in order to counter future coronavirus outbreaks, the global scientific and medical research community should focus a major effort now on three goals. 

The goals 

Anthony Fauci, Jeffery Taubenberger and David Morens argue that the three goals the global scientific and medical research community should focus on are: 

  1. Characterise the range of coronavirus genetic diversity in multiple animal species 
  2. Better understand coronavirus disease pathogenesis in laboratory animal models and people 
  3. Apply this knowledge to the development of long-lasting, broadly protective coronavirus vaccines 

Context 

Fauci, Taubenberger and Morens present a growing body of scientific evidence which reportedly suggests that novel coronaviruses will continue to infect bats and other animal reservoirs and potentially emerge to pose a pandemic threat to humans.  

The authors call for an international collaborative effort to extensively sample coronaviruses from bats as well as wild and farmed animals to help understand the full “universe” of existing and emerging coronaviruses. Such studies could, they say, provide early warning about coronaviruses poised to cause outbreaks in humans. They write that carefully controlled human challenge trials, in which volunteers are exposed to coronaviruses, could yield a fuller understanding of coronavirus disease processes and inform vaccine design.    

Permanent immunity 

Despite the availability of safe, effective Covid-19 vaccines, it remains unknown whether and how permanent immunity can be achieved, the NIAID authors note. They say SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, will probably continue to circulate indefinitely in periodic outbreaks, and animal coronaviruses of unknown transmissibility and lethality may emerge at any time.  

Therefore, they urge the industry to greatly accelerate efforts in coronavirus vaccinology. They outline the features of an ideal universal coronavirus vaccine that would provide durable protection from most or all coronaviruses for individuals of all ages and communities at large. To achieve this goal, fundamental questions about the nature of coronavirus protective immunity must be addressed, including what vaccine approaches best elicit rapid responses (antibodies, for example) and lasting immune “memory” responses that could defend against newly emergent coronaviruses.  

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