Duke Human Vaccine Institute develops potential coronavirus vaccine to protect against variants, future outbreaks

Researchers at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute have created a vaccine with the potential to protect against multiple types of coronavirus.

The new pan-coronavirus vaccine, which has had promising results in protecting mice and monkeys from a variety of coronavirus infections, could be useful as a booster shot and a way to vaccinate against new variants of SARS-CoV-2. It could also help prevent more coronavirus outbreaks in the future. 

“Now is the time to plan for the next coronavirus pandemic or outbreak. We’ve had two major outbreaks before COVID-19: one in 2003, the [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak, and one in 2011, the [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak,” said Barton Haynes, director of the DHVI and Frederic M. Hanes distinguished professor of medicine, in a May 17 COVID-19 media briefing. “Both [were] coronaviruses. And certainly we expect others.” 

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which rely on mRNA technology, the pan-coronavirus vaccine is protein-based. The vaccine takes a small piece of the virus and presents copies of it to the immune system, which can in turn build a response against that part of the virus.

In developing this vaccine, researchers at the DHVI drew from their previous research efforts to develop an HIV-AIDS vaccine. 

“Fortunately, the pan-coronavirus vaccine has proved much easier to develop than the more difficult HIV vaccine,” Haynes told The Chronicle. “However, we used the technology developed for the HIV vaccine and were able in early 2020 to apply it to the new coronavirus epidemic.”

Since the vaccine interacts with a site on the virus that varies across different coronaviruses, it can only protect against a subset of coronaviruses. The vaccine targets a group of beta-coronaviruses called Group 2B coronaviruses, which also caused the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2011 MERS epidemic.

“One highlight of the study is that it prevents virus replication in the nose,” DHVI Director of Research Kevin Saunders said during the briefing. This vaccine would help prevent the spread of the virus if someone were to sneeze or blow their nose. Previous coronavirus vaccines have only prevented virus replication in the lungs.

Research on the pan-coronavirus vaccine is being funded by the state of North Carolina with funds from the federal CARES Act, according to a Duke Health press release. The researchers are also planning to apply for funds from the National Institutes of Health to manufacture the vaccine.

Haynes discussed how the SARS and MERS epidemics died out before they got to the pandemic stage, which also halted interest in moving forward on developing their respective. He noted that “now is the time to prepare for the next one.”

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and White House senior advisor on the pandemic, called the new research “exciting” and “an important proof of concept” during a May 13 White House briefing presentation. 

Not only could this vaccine prevent the next coronavirus outbreak, but it could also serve as a booster shot. During the next several years, the U.S. population may need booster shots to maintain COVID-19 immunity. The researchers’ next steps are therefore to manufacture this vaccine and test it in humans in a Phase 1 safety trial as quickly as possible.

“Our job is to prepare for pandemics and we’re already preparing for what might be the next pandemic,” Haynes said in the briefing. “Whether it’s another type of coronavirus, influenza or yet another type of outbreak, that’s what the Vaccine Institute is here for, and it’s a very exciting time.”


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