Jab that protects against multiple variants 'at least two years away'

·3-min read
Scientists hope to create a "100-day" vaccine - Alexandru Pavalache/EyeEm
Scientists hope to create a "100-day" vaccine - Alexandru Pavalache/EyeEm

A vaccine that provides broad protection against many different Covid variants is at least two years away, a vaccine expert has warned.

Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), an organisation that has helped fund several Covid jabs, told an online press briefing that there were “core scientific challenges” to developing a vaccine that could protect against many different mutations of the virus.

Dr Hatchett said that broadly protective vaccines were “at least a couple of years away”. If a new variant emerged that acted in a significantly different way to omicron and other variants “plausibly we could have another Covid epidemic”.

He said studies showed that people who were infected with Sars, a closely related virus that caused an epidemic in 2003 to 2004, also produced antibodies to Covid

“Biologically, we know that it’s possible but the question is how do we now capture that and put it into a vaccine that we can easily administer? That’s going to take some time,” he said.

Dr Hatchett made his comments at a press briefing where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome pledged $150 million each to Cepi for its bid to develop a “100-day” vaccine that would stop the next pandemic in its tracks.

With its vaccine “moonshot'' Cepi plans to develop prototype vaccines for the 25 viral families known to infect humans. When the next virus with pandemic potential emerges, scientists hope they will be able to build on the prototype to develop a vaccine ready for use within 100 days.

By contrast, the first Covid vaccine was developed in 11 months - while this was an “unprecedented” acceleration of the normal vaccine development timeline it “wasn’t good enough”, said Dr Hatchett.

“If our 100-day goal had been achieved for Covid-19 a vaccine could have been available as early as April 2020. Millions of lives and trillions of dollars could have been saved and the spread of dangerous variants which have clearly prolonged the pandemic might have been averted,” he said.

Cepi helped fund the AstraZeneca, Novavax and Moderna vaccines and is also funding jabs against other diseases with pandemic potential such as Nipah virus and Lassa fever.

Bill Gates said the $150m would bring his foundation’s total funding of Cepi to $270m.

“When we talk about spending billions of dollars to save trillions in economic damage and 10s of millions of lives, it’s a pretty good insurance policy. Particularly if you can take that investment and build better vaccines for diseases like TB, HIV and malaria,” he said.

But he said that as well as vaccine development it was also important to fund infrastructure such as manufacturing facilities and logistics. Supply constraints have hampered Covax, the global vaccine sharing facility, in its bid to vaccinate the world as there is still no major manufacturing facility in Africa, for example.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, said the world needed a global approach to pandemic preparedness.

“Whilst many countries have understandably focused on their domestic challenges over the last few years we have to change that approach. We have to come back together across borders, across continents and put our differences aside for the common good,” he said.

But he also cautioned that the virus remains “highly elastic and is still adapting to humanity”.

“The arrival of omicron represents a new troubling phase and shows just how in the balance this pandemic is. None of us believe omicron will be the last variant or that Covid-19 will be the last pandemic,” he said.

And he said while the UK had turned a corner with the number of cases falling the pandemic was not over.

“We now need to make vaccines available globally and that will be when we bring this phase of the pandemic to a close,” he said.

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