On the horizon: Duke Human Vaccine Institute working on universal coronavirus shot

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – A vaccine is on the horizon that would prevent animal-to-human diseases like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was the SARS outbreak in 2003 and MERS in 2011.

“Certainly, we expect there will be others, so now is the time to provide vaccines that will prepare for those so that we can now control outbreaks and keep them from becoming pandemics in the future,” said Dr. Bart Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

The Duke Human Vaccine Institute is using 15 years of research on HIV/AIDS as part of its effort to produce booster vaccines that fight COVID-19 variants.

“We knew the SARS-CoV-2 virus was an RNA virus. That means the kind of genetic material it use, and has the same kind of genetic material the HIV virus uses. The HIV virus is one of the most rapidly evolving life forms that we know because RNA viruses tend to make mistakes as they replicate,” Haynes said.

“And we knew the SARS-CoV-2 virus would also develop mutants that would escape our immune system as our immune system made antibodies against it. We decided to (shift) all these years of work from HIV to the coronavirus vaccine work and work on vaccines that would be useful as boosters in case we need it to make the immune response stronger. We are now discussing these kinds of possibilities for boosting the existing vaccines.”

They’ve found a genetic sequence that diseases originating in animals have in common. That’s what this new vaccine attacks, which means it could also prevent the next virus that may come from an animal like a bat.

“It was able to bind to not only SARS-CoV-2 but also to coronaviruses that circulate in animals,” said Kevin Saunders, director of research at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. “What this vaccine does, it takes a small part of the virus, the part of the virus that attaches to the cells, and it presents multiple copies of that to the immune system.

“That allows the immune system to focus a response against that part of the virus, preventing the virus from being able to attach to cells, and hopefully preventing subsequent infection.”

Testing on monkeys has shown the treatment, called a pan-coronavirus vaccine, to be 100 percent effective against SARS, MERS and COVID-19. The race to develop vaccines for COVID-19 has helped.

“There’s been some advances in technology and some advances in how the clinical trials were conducted that have really changed the way the vaccine development field has moved. What we found in this study is that we got antibodies. This is the part of the immune system that can attach to viruses and prevent infection. We got that part of the immune system stimulated such that it was able to bind to not only SARS-CoV-2 but also to coronaviruses that circulate in animals,” Saunders said.

The pan-coronavirus vaccine halts the virus in the nose and lungs, which is these diseases spread.

“The bottom line is we’re trying to get this made as soon as possible so that it can have some kind of positive impact. That involves the issue of following the variants and making sure the variants are susceptible to the antibodies induced by this vaccine,” Saunders said.

The next step is to safely manufacture it for human trials. Availability to the consumers is likely a year away. At the same time, they are looking at the common cold. That, too, could one day be included in this universal vaccine.