The invention of Covid-19 vaccines will be remembered as a medical milestone. But many scientists are also seeking a vaccine that could work against all coronaviruses.
Researchers are starting to develop prototypes of what’s known as a pancoronavirus vaccine, with some promising early results. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, thinks scientists should join together in another large vaccine-creation project.
“We have to get a real work force to accelerate this so we can have it this year,” Dr. Topol said. He and Dennis Burton, a Scripps immunologist, called for this project on broad coronavirus vaccines on Monday in the journal Nature.
When coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s, they did not become a high priority for vaccine makers. But in 2002, the coronavirus SARS-CoV emerged, causing a deadly pneumonia called severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
The danger of coronaviruses became even clearer in 2012 when a second species spilled over from bats, causing another deadly respiratory disease called MERS. Some researchers wondered whether it was really wise to make a new vaccine for each coronavirus — what Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, the director of Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., calls “the one bug, one drug approach.”
Wouldn’t it be better, they thought, if a single vaccine could work against SARS, MERS and any other coronavirus?
In 2016, Maria Elena Bottazzi, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine, and her colleagues applied for support from the U.S. government to develop a pancoronavirus vaccine but did not receive it. “They said there’s no interest in pancorona,” Dr. Bottazzi recalled.
Three years later, a third dangerous coronavirus emerged: the SARS-CoV-2 strain that causes Covid-19.
All of the lessons that researchers had learned about coronaviruses helped them move quickly to make new vaccines. The Covid-19 pandemic is still far from over, but a number of experts are calling for preparations for the next deadly coronavirus.
“This has already happened three times,” said Daniel Hoft, a virologist at Saint Louis University. “It’s very likely going to happen again.”
Researchers at VBI vaccines, a Cambridge-based company, took a step toward creating a pancoronavirus vaccine last summer.
Last month, Pamela Bjorkman, a structural biologist at Caltech, and her colleagues published a more extensive experiment with a universal coronavirus vaccine in the journal Science.
And Dr. Modjarrad is leading a team developing another pancoronavirus vaccine. He expects clinical trials to start next month.