U.S. Army Begins Human Trials of Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine
Amidst news of current COVID-19 vaccines proving less effective against infections with Delta and Omicron variants of the disease, researchers are turning toward the development of pan-coronavirus vaccines that would work effectively against multiple variants. Scientists and researchers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMC) in Maryland have been doing just that over the past two years and have announced they are testing the vaccine in humans in a Phase I study.
COVID-19 vaccines currently manufactured and distributed by Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna are messenger RNA vaccines that use mRNA protein from the SARS-CoV-2 virus to instruct the body’s cells to create an immune response if they encounter it. More specifically, the mRNA instructs the cells to recognize a specific spike protein on the virus’s surface; however, this spike protein has mutated in recent variants, causing the vaccines to be slightly less effective.
To mitigate the issues caused by the mutating virus, WRNMC researchers have found a way to create a vaccine that can recognize multiple spike proteins at once by using ferritin, an iron-based protein. Ferritin has a unique structure with 24 sides, all of which can have an attachment of a different viral protein. By using ferritin in a pan-coronavirus vaccine, the nanoparticle can produce an array of varying coronavirus antigens not just from SARS-CoV-2 variants but other coronavirus species and strains.
“This vaccine stands out in the COVID-19 vaccine landscape,” said Kayvon Modjarrad, a researcher from WRNMC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch. “The repetitive and ordered display of the coronavirus spike protein on a multi-faced nanoparticle may stimulate immunity in such a way as to translate into significantly broader protection.”
In preclinical studies using primates, a vaccine utilizing ferritin demonstrated robust immune responses against several variants of the COVID-19-causing virus. One study showed broad neutralizing antibody response in primates against a variety of SARS-CoV-2 variants as well as effective immune responses against the original SARS virus from 2002.
The military research group is now moving to test the vaccine in humans in a Phase I clinical study. The group stated they will be testing the effect of vaccine-induced antibodies against all known SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Omicron and will investigate the vaccine’s safety in those previously vaccinated with a current COVID-19 vaccine and in those that have been infected with the virus. Although they are far along in their research, developing and implementing a pan-coronavirus vaccine could take months or years to complete.
Other institutions working towards creating a universal coronavirus vaccine include the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, University of Washington, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The drive for a universal coronavirus vaccine is high given how well the virus mutates and the recent resurgence of infections and deaths in the United States.
Additionally, even “mild” infections with the virus can cause permanent damage and leave some people afflicted with Long COVID, a debilitating post-viral condition that can cause fatigue, muscle weakness, sleep disturbances, and shortness of breath. According to many studies, the best defense against Long COVID and other post-infection consequences is vaccination.