‘Proactive’ vaccine protects against unknown future coronaviruses

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Researchers have developed a new vaccine technology that can provide protection against a broad range of coronaviruses with potential for future disease outbreaks – including ones we don’t know about yet.

This approach to vaccine development is called ‘proactive vaccinology’, where scientists build a vaccine before the disease-causing pathogen even emerges.

The new vaccine works by training the body’s immune system to recognise specific regions of eight different coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, and several that are currently circulating in bats and have potential to jump to humans and cause a pandemic.

“Our focus is to create a vaccine that will protect us against the next coronavirus pandemic, and have it ready before the pandemic has even started,” said Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology. “We’ve created a vaccine that provides protection against a broad range of different coronaviruses – including ones we don’t even know about yet.”

The key to the vaccine’s effectiveness is the fact that the specific virus regions that it targets also appear in many related coronaviruses . By training the immune system to attack these regions, it gives protection against other coronaviruses not represented in the vaccine.

For example, the new vaccine does not include the SARS-CoV-1 coronavirus, which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak, yet it still induces an immune response to that virus.

Building protective vaccines before a pandemic emerges

“We don’t have to wait for new coronaviruses to emerge. We know enough about coronaviruses, and different immune responses to them, that we can get going with building protective vaccines against unknown coronaviruses now,” said Professor Mark Howarth in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology.

He added: “Scientists did a great job in quickly producing an extremely effective Covid vaccine during the last pandemic, but the world still had a massive crisis with a huge number of deaths. We need to work out how we can do even better than that in the future, and a powerful component of that is starting to build the vaccines in advance.”

The new ‘Quartet Nanocage’ vaccine is based on a nanoparticle. Chains of different viral antigens are attached to this nanoparticle using a novel ‘protein superglue’. Multiple antigens are included in these chains, which trains the immune system to target specific regions shared across a broad range of coronaviruses.

The study demonstrated that the new vaccine raises a broad immune response, even in mice that were pre-immunised with SARS-CoV-2.

The new vaccine is much simpler in design than other broadly protective vaccines currently in development, which the researchers say should accelerate its route into clinical trials.

The vaccine should enter Phase I clinical trials in early 2025, but its complex nature makes it challenging to manufacture which could limit large-scale production.

Diana Spencer, Senior Digital Content Editor, DDW

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