Anthony S. Fauci has for years lectured on the need for a universal vaccine that could protect against all strains of the flu, warning three years ago that without one, “a single virus would result in a world catastrophe.”
Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has proven that prediction correct—even if that single virus is a different one altogether—Fauci sees a need that’s just as critical. But he also also sees the potential for getting one, thanks to the research that produced vaccines from
“It really behooves us to take a look at the fact that we’ve had three pandemic realities or potentials,” Fauci said in an interview with Bloomberg Law, referencing the SARS outbreak in 2003 and MERS in 2012 before Covid-19. “We’re on our third coronavirus pandemic. We have to get a universal coronavirus vaccine.”
The current outbreak of SARS-Cov-2—the virus that causes Covid-19—has infected more than 73 million people worldwide and caused more than 300,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. The pandemic is the actualization of what for years Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has described as his worst nightmare—a new respiratory virus that spreads easily and has a high degree of morbidity and mortality.
The pandemic also brought unprecedented scientific progress. Scientists at the NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center co-developed the Moderna vaccine, running the first human experiments on a Covid-19 vaccine
Both vaccines surpassed all expectations, demonstrating they are 94% to 95% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19, with the first FDA-authorized vaccines from Pfizer being administered this week. A similar vaccine from Moderna could be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration as early as this week.
Covid-19, like other coronaviruses and influenza, has RNA as its genetic material. Because these viruses mutate rapidly, some emerging strains may be so different from older ones that vaccinations will not provide protection to people, Georgia State University professor Baozhong Wang said
SARS-Cov-2 is just one of seven coronaviruses known to infect humans, which range in severity from the common cold to the current pandemic. While Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines have shown they work really well against symptomatic Covid-19, it’s unclear whether they can work against other coronaviruses.
“This single one is the first step toward us doing it universally. Now we haven’t done the experiments to try and see if it cross reacts with all of the other, but that’s easy to do,” Fauci said.
While the seasonal flu shot can protect against universal strains of influenza, it takes at least six months of lead time to produce that in sufficient quantities, and the vaccine viruses are based on the best guess as to what strains are most likely to circulate that year. It’s part of why Fauci has pushed for a universal influenza vaccine.
Wang’s laboratory is working on a conceptual universal coronavirus vaccine, testing to see if candidates can induce broadly neutralizing antibody responses in mice.
“With the great progress on coronavirus vaccines recently, like Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, scientists are thinking something further,” Wang said. Studies on recovered patients have found antibodies in the immune system that have shared structures to protect against different coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS.
“This means, if some such structures can be identified and engineered as immunogens in vaccine development, new vaccines have the potential to trigger broader protection covering different coronaviruses and their variants,” Wang said.
‘Blows Me Away’
A year ago, Claes Gustafsson, co-founder and chief operating officer of bioengineering firm ATUM, would have said a universal coronavirus vaccine is decades away. But the interest spurred by the pandemic coupled with advances in vaccine technology could put a universal coronavirus vaccine on the horizon in a few years.
“It just blows me away to see that we went from hardly knowing anything about this virus a year ago to have vaccines on the market today,” Gustafsson said. “This is, I would say, 10 times faster than I would have guessed a year ago. It’s just unbelievable how fast the technology has been moving forward.”
Both Wang and Gustafsson said the knowledge developed in pursuing a universal influenza vaccine can accelerate work on a universal coronavirus vaccine.
“The strategies are all the same,” Gustafsson said. Scientists can sequence different strains of the same virus to see which parts tend to change, which parts remain consistent from virus to virus. “And then, you see that the ones that are consistent, which ones are exposed to the outset of the virus, or you can use those to trigger your immune system.”
Wang cautioned that the research is still in the concept verification stage. Scientists need time to know how the viruses change to evade immune responses and how long protection can last after an infection recovery or vaccination.
“Due to the short history of CoV-2 and scientists are in the process to know more about the virus, I will not foresee a rapid realization of a universal coronavirus vaccine, like something of the current studies on the Cov-2 general vaccine,” Wang said.
More Money Needed
While Fauci said he can’t predict whether scientists will be successful, there’s reason to believe they will. “We will find certain components of all coronaviruses that are common denominators. Whether or not a response to them might actually be a universal response that you can apply to each strain, we don’t know yet,” Fauci said.
That work will require more funding, Fauci acknowledged. “But we’ll just make it a high priority and make sure that we put our resources in that direction.”
For now, Fauci said the National Institutes of Health is focused on the emergency in front of it.
“We’re just in the process of taking care of this pandemic for the time being. As soon as we get this out of the way, then we’ll move full blown towards the other.”