Scientists now have vaccine to fight next Covid pandemic

There is concern that the NHS will struggle over the festive period dealing with high levels of other respiratory illnesses
A coronavirus jab -Credit:PA

A new jab is effective against coronaviruses that haven’t even emerged yet, claim scientists. Cambridge University researchers have developed new vaccine technology that has been shown in mice to provide protection against a wide range of viruses with potential for future devastating outbreaks.

Their aim is to create a vaccine that will protect people against the next coronavirus pandemic - and have it ready before the outbreak even begins. The new approach - ‘proactive vaccinology’ - involves scientists building 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 currently circulating in bats and have the potential to jump to humans and cause a pandemic. Key to its effectiveness is that the specific virus regions the vaccine targets also appear in many related coronaviruses, say scientists.

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By training the immune system to attack those regions, it gives protection against other coronaviruses not represented in the vaccine – including ones that haven’t even been identified yet.

Conventional vaccines include a single antigen to train the immune system to target a single specific virus. That may not protect against a diverse range of existing coronaviruses, or against pathogens that are newly emerging.

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

Study first author Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology, said: “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. We’ve created a vaccine that provides protection against a broad range of different coronaviruses – including ones we don’t even know about yet.”

Senior author Professor Mark Howarth, also of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology, said: “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,”

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 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. They believe the underlying technology they have developed also has potential for use in vaccine development to protect against other health problems.

The work involved a collaboration between scientists at Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the United States. It improves on previous work, by the Oxford and Caltech groups, to develop a new "all-in-one" vaccine against coronavirus threats.

The vaccine developed by Oxford and Caltech is due to enter clinical trials next year, but scientists say its "complex" nature makes it "challenging" to manufacture which could limit large-scale production.

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