Experts call for universal vaccine in anticipation of future variants

Chasing the latest circulating COVID-19 variant with a targeted vaccine isn't a viable pandemic strategy, experts say, instead calling for an Operation Warp Speed approach for the development of a universal vaccine, The Washington Post reported Feb. 15.

Drugmakers have created variant-specific vaccines for beta, delta and omicron, but many scientists say it's a game of catch-up and unsustainable in the long-term. 

"You don't want to play this whack-a-mole approach," David Martinez, PhD, a viral immunologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the Post. "This could go on forever." Dr. Martinez is working on a vaccine that shows the immune system "chimeric" spikes — spikes that patch together fragments from SARS-CoV-2, a bit from the original SARS virus, and another component from a bat coronavirus. 

Now, many scientists are working on designing a type of variant-proof vaccine, aiming to offer broad protection for existing variants and those yet to emerge. 

"We're looking for a tetanus-like shot," said Barton Haynes, MD, immunology and vaccine expert at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C.  "We all have to get a tetanus shot every 10 years. That would be really terrific," he told the Post. 

Crafting a shot that offers broad protection, however, means overcoming a lot of hurdles, as it requires a more layered and complex approach than the first versions of the vaccine targeting the SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in 2019. 

"You shouldn't confuse the rapidity and the ease with which we developed a coronavirus vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 with the extraordinary obstacles you might face in trying to get a vaccine that protects" more broadly, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Post. "There's a lot of scientific discovery that needs to go into that."

The level of challenges creating a truly universal vaccine presents can be seen in the decades spent trying to create universal influenza vaccines. 

"We have been studying influenza viruses more than 70 years, and we are trying to make universal influenza vaccines, and we still haven't been able to do it," said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, PhD, a virologist who is working on a pan-coronavirus vaccine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "But this is a different virus, and I think it's worth trying. What I'm trying to say is that it may not be easy," he told the Post. 

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