New universal coronavirus vaccine could prevent future pandemics

A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows a vaccine could be effective against COVID-19, its variants and future coronavirus pandemics

David R. Martinez sitting in his lab.
David R. Martinez in the lab on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill. )

Scientists at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health have developed a vaccine that could be effective against COVID-19, its variants — and a future coronavirus pandemic.

While no one knows which virus may cause the next outbreak, coronaviruses remain a threat after causing the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a study published June 22 in Science, the vaccine designed at UNC-Chapel Hill protected mice from the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, plus a group of coronaviruses known to make the jump from animals to humans.

Ralph Baric standing in his lab.

Epidemiologist Ralph Baric in the lab at the UNC Gilings School of Global Public Health. (Photo by Megan May.)

The lead study authors are David R. Martinez, a postdoctoral researcher at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and a Hanna H. Gray Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and professor of immunology and microbiology at the UNC School of Medicine, whose research has led to new therapies to fight emerging infectious diseases.

“Our findings look bright for the future because they suggest we can design more universal pan coronavirus vaccines to proactively guard against viruses we know are at risk for emerging in humans,” Martinez said. “With this strategy, perhaps we can prevent a SARS-CoV-3.”

Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill are playing a key role in coronavirus vaccine development. After testing the effectiveness of the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines, they pivoted to look at a second-generation vaccine: one that targets sarbecoviruses, Baric said.

Sarbecoviruses, part of the large family of coronaviruses, are a priority for virologists after two caused devastating diseases in the past two decades: SARS and COVID-19.

The team’s approach started with mRNA, which is similar to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used today. But instead of including the mRNA code for only one virus, they welded together mRNA from multiple coronaviruses.

When given to mice, the hybrid vaccine effectively generated neutralizing antibodies against multiple spike proteins, which viruses use to latch onto healthy cells, including one associated with the Delta variant B.1.351, first discovered in South Africa.

“The vaccine has the potential to prevent outbreaks when used as a variant is detected,” said Baric, a trailblazer in pandemic preparedness who advocates proactive, rather than reactive, tracking of emerging coronaviruses.

The paper includes data from mice infected with SARS-CoV and related coronaviruses and the vaccine prevented infection and lung damage in mice. Further studies could put the vaccine on track for human clinical trials next year.

The lead authors worked with a team of scientists from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

The National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health and the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, with funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, supported the study.

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