Scientists Launch R&D Plan to Develop Broad Vaccine for Coronaviruses

Fifty influential scientists have developed a coronavirus vaccines research and development (R&D) roadmap aimed at developing broadly protective vaccines to combat fast-evolving coronaviruses threatening humans.

“The COVID-19 pandemic marks the third time in just 20 years that a coronavirus has emerged to cause a public health crisis,” said Professor Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). 

“Rather than waiting for a fourth coronavirus to emerge — or for the arrival of an especially dangerous SARS-CoV-2 variant — we must act now to develop better, longer-lasting and more broadly protective vaccines,” added Osterholm, whose centre spearheaded the development of the roadmap that was unveiled on Tuesday.

The roadmap sets out steps to accelerate the development of broadly effective coronavirus vaccines capable of preventing severe disease and death that are suitable for all regions worldwide.

New SARS-CoV-2 variants pose the most immediate threat and could evolve until they evade the protection of current vaccines. 

But the bigger fear is the emergence of a super-coronavirus that has the transmissibility of SARSCoV-2 combined with the deadliness of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). MERS-CoV spilled over from camels to humans in 2012 and kills about a third of the people it infects. 

To head off such a threat, the roadmap proposes a number of approaches. One could involve a stepwise process, starting with vaccines to protect against SARS-CoV-2 variants. As knowledge about coronaviruses expands, it may be possible to develop vaccines that are capable of protecting against multiple types of coronaviruses, including those likely to spill over from animals to humans in the future. 

“It is critical that we start now to develop vaccines that are future-ready for coronaviruses circulating in animals now, that might infect humans and cause pandemics in the future as SARS-CoV-3 and beyond,” said Professor Linfa Wang, executive director of Singapore’s Programme for Research in Epidemic Preparedness and Response (PREPARE). 

Wang, who was part of the team that developed the roadmap, also said that the work was daunting: “The coronavirus diversity in bats is so great that we even don’t know how much we really know about them.”

Five work areas

The roadmap proposes five areas of work:

Virology: learning more about the global distribution of coronaviruses circulating in animal reservoirs that have the potential to spill over to humans. 

Immunology: learning more about human immunology to expand the breadth and durability of immune protection from vaccines and natural infection. This includes a better understanding of mucosal immunity, which may unlock new strategies to block infection such as nasal sprays. 

Vaccinology: identifying key preferred product characteristics for vaccines, including new technologies and identifying the best methods to assess vaccine efficacy. 

Animal and human infection models for vaccine research: expanding the range of suitable animal models, which is a key barrier to developing broadly protective coronavirus vaccines. 

Policy and financing: reinvigorating and sustaining a high level of political commitment and long-term investment in vaccine R&D and manufacturing to ensure the successful development and global distribution of broadly protective coronavirus vaccines.

While praising the current COVID-19 vaccines, Wellcome Trust’s Dr Charlie Weller, said the roadmap would research “new ways to deliver vaccines, such as skin patches or intranasal vaccines – and maybe even vaccines that could block transmission”. 

Constant mutation

“Coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2 are constantly mutating. With every infection, there is an interplay among host characteristics, past infection, and vaccination – each exerting further pressures on the virus to evolve and acquire further reproductive and fitness advantages,” wrote Dr Margaret Hamburg, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, and Dr  Gregory Poland, from the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in the US in a commentary published in the journal, Vaccine.

“As a consequence, we are chasing continually evolving viral opponents, leaving the global community in a reactive rather than proactive position in regard to vaccines, therapeutics, and public health policies.”

They warn that the global community cannot afford “to play reactive catch up continuously, chasing the latest variant”, or expect people to get vaccinated several times a year. 

However, Hamburg and Poland added that the roadmap also needs “a governance or administrative structure” to better coordinate vaccine R&D and track progress –and accountability – on the goals and milestones that will further facilitate and accelerate this process.

They point to the “siloed” activities by governments, industry and researchers, and how the roadmap can “build bridges between these various sectors” to reduce barriers and duplication, and improve efficiencies.

Image Credits: Johnson&Johnson.

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