Long before Alexander Cohen—or anyone else—had heard of the alpha, delta, or omicron variants of covid-19, he and his graduate school advisor Pamela Bjorkman were doing the research that might soon make it possible for a single vaccine to defeat the rapidly evolving virus—along with any other covid-19 variant that might arise in the future. 

Before the pandemic, Cohen had been a PhD student in Bjorkman’s structural biology lab at the California Institute of Technology, attempting to engineer a new kind of “universal” flu vaccine. It was designed to train the body’s immune system to recognize portions of the influenza virus that the pathogen wouldn’t be able to change or disguise even as it evolved.

So in early 2020, when covid-19 hit and he was soon to receive his degree, Cohen, Bjorkman, and other members of the lab set to engineering a universal covid vaccine—one that would provide protection not just against all its variants, but also against future illnesses caused by entirely new types of coronaviruses.

“We’re definitely going to need something like this to fight covid-19 as new variants emerge,” Cohen says. “But beyond that, the potential for new global outbreaks and pandemics caused by other coronaviruses is clear. We need something that can prevent new covid-19-like scenarios from happening again. And we need it as soon as possible.”

Public health officials and scientists had long complained about a lack of funding—or a sense of urgency—to develop vaccines that would protect us against future pandemics. Prompted by covid-19, however, the US National Institutes of Health began doling out tens of millions of dollars to research groups pursuing universal coronavirus vaccines.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. In January, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the development of universal coronavirus vaccines an “urgent need,” noting that the emergence of covid-19 variants over the last two years hints at far larger long-term threats. He has since argued that even more resources are needed to continue the fight, and he has been publicly lobbying lawmakers to allocate them.

This new kind of custom-designed, bioengineered vaccine could be the answer we so desperately need to avoid future coronavirus pandemics.

“Scientific evidence and ecologic reality suggest that coronaviruses will emerge again in the future, potentially posing an existential threat,” Fauci wrote in an article coauthored with two other infectious disease experts for the New England Journal of Medicine.

The key to meeting the challenge, groups like Bjorkman’s are ­showing, may lie in our ability to use the tools of synthetic biology to trick the microscopic weapons of the immune system—weapons that already exist in the human body.  The researchers are finding ways to supercharge these immune cells to provide remarkably general protection against invading microbes. If these approaches succeed, they could not only provide much more effective protection against covid but possibly revolutionize how we create new vaccines for complex viruses in general.

Having helped lead the way in developing these techniques, Cohen, Bjorkman, and their collaborators are now tantalizingly close to achieving their goal of manufacturing a vaccine that broadly triggers an immune response not just to covid and its variants but to a wider variety of coronaviruses.  

Their vaccine consists of a spherical protein core, studded in a soccer-ball-like pattern with the tips of “spike” proteins taken from the surface of eight varieties of coronaviruses—what the scientists call a mosaic nanoparticle. Remarkably, initial results showed that in a test tube, antibodies produced by this synthetic vaccine were able to identify and stick to not just all eight coronaviruses represented on the nanoparticle, but four additional coronaviruses not used in the vaccine. In March, the group reported that the vaccine appeared to protect mice and monkeys that had been exposed to an array of coronaviruses.

In July, they published results in Science, showing that their mosaic nanoparticle vaccine protected mice and nonhuman primates against the delta and beta covid-19 variants as well as the human viruses that caused the first SARS outbreak in 2003. The results are perhaps the most promising evidence yet that this new kind of custom-designed, bioengineered vaccine could be the answer we so desperately need to avoid future coronavirus pandemics.

The next step is to test the vaccine in humans. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations will provide as much as $30 million to begin human trials. Edinburgh-based biotech company Ingenza will manufacture the medicine.  

Since this approach is novel, it could take as long as two years to begin the trial. But if it’s successful, it could protect us against ever having to endure another covid-related lock
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