In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers in Saskatoon are suiting up for another fight.
They’re part of a worldwide effort to create what could be a holy grail: a universal vaccine that might be able to work against all future coronavirus-related viruses.
It’s like fire insurance, Volker Gerdts, director and CEO of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, told CTV News.
“Hopefully you will never use it. Hopefully you wasted that money,” Gerdts said. “But when you have a fire, when a new disease breaks out, you're ready, and that's the concept for this.”
Gerdts’ team is working on researching a universal vaccine in Saskatoon to prepare for the next coronavirus pandemic.
“What really we're trying to do is to be ready to almost predict what the next pathogen or the next disease looks like, and have a vaccine ready on the day when the disease emerges,” Gerdts said.
It’s a something that numerous research teams across the world have been looking at. An article published in the journal The New Scientist in February laid out the quest, calling it a “daunting challenge.”
“We would like to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine for all coronaviruses,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said at an online meeting run by the New York Academy of Sciences.
When COVID-19 hit, the pandemic sparked an intense race to develop the first ever vaccines against this specific coronavirus.
Hundreds of companies worked on potential products, and numerous candidates received approval, some using new technologies and all using different formulas and strategies. Now, instead of the virus being treated by one vaccine across the globe, different countries have worked out deals for shipments of select brands at varying quantities. It’s a patchwork global response, which is not ideal in a time of crisis.
“The development of multiple highly effective COVID vaccines in the last year is probably one of the greatest scientific achievements that we've had certainly in the last 100 years,” Theodore Schenkelberg, co-founder and chief operating officer of the Human Vaccines Project, told CTV News.
“But even with those achievements. It turns out that it was too late and too little, we're approaching about three million deaths and we've shut down global economies and many millions more have become sick and infected.”
He pointed out that we could prevent scientists from needing to scramble for multiple vaccines in the future if we already had a universal vaccine that would help against a future coronavirus.
Coronaviruses have been behind several outbreaks in known history: SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the next iteration could be equally or more dangerous.
“There are hundreds of these types of viruses, which are infecting animals. And probably in the coming decades, we'll see another coronavirus outbreak,” Schenkelberg said. “And we want to be in a much better position than we were in the current one.
“The idea about a universal vaccine is a vaccine that would work against all these different types of viruses within the coronavirus family. It would be able to fight or neutralize all of them.”
A universal flu shot has been in the work for decades, but has not yet been approved. One candidate’s phase three trials just last fall ended in disappointment when it failed to be effective, despite years of research.
A universal vaccine for coronaviruses would be even more challenging to develop and approve.
The scientists in Gerdts’ lab are hoping to succeed by targeting stable parts of the virus that don't mutate, in order to ensure that a vaccine would work against the virus no matter how much it had changed.
“What we're doing is we're looking at the regions and on the virus surface and even on the inside of the virus to see if there is any structural regions of the virus that are conserved amongst the many members of this family,” Gerdts explained.
One of the other research projects looking into this is being developed by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, which started phase one clinical trials in April on a coronavirus vaccine that could target multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses too.
The study is enrolling 72 adults aged 18-55, who will be randomly selected to receive the vaccine candidate or a placebo. It’s a nanoparticle vaccine, called spike ferritin nanoparticle, and pre-clinical trials indicated that it could induce an antibody response that would work against SARS-CoV-2 as well as three of the major variants.
But although such research is promising, another hurdle will be convincing governments not to abandon funding this research once the current crisis is over.
“You have to put money into development of those vaccines and get them to the stage where, at least in humans, you have demonstrated that they're safe,” Gerdts said.
Just to run a phase one vaccine study can cost millions of dollars — and it’s hard to convince companies and governments to invest that type of money when there isn’t an immediate use for it.
But if it could be developed, it could help us avoid another coronavirus pandemic entirely.
“If we don't have effective vaccines, we're not going to be able to function as a society, our health systems won't work well, our economies won't work well,” Schenkelberg said.
Human trials of other prototype universal vaccines from Massachusetts, U.S., and the United Kingdom are set to begin later this year — the race to cure the next pandemic already underway.