As the rise of SARS-CoV-2 variants threatens to prolong the pandemic, a growing number of researchers are calling for the development of vaccines that can work on not just all SARS-CoV-2 variants but other coronaviruses as well.
The idea of a pan-coronavirus vaccine is not new. A handful of scientists have supported the concept of pan-coronavirus and universal flu vaccines for years. Last June, the privately-held company Immunovative Therapies (Jerusalem, Israel) announced it was working on a pan-viral vaccine. In November, NIAID announced it would offer funding for potential pan-coronavirus vaccine candidates.
A recent article in Nature espousing the idea elevates the idea further.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of the concept. A widely available pan-coronavirus vaccine could help stamp out future coronavirus pandemics and the common cold strains.
The economic benefits of such a vaccine would be considerable.
The productivity losses from the common cold and flu alone are monumental. Almost two decades ago, a team of researchers concluded that the cost of lost productivity from the common cold was approximately $25 billion in the U.S. annually. The firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas concluded in 2019 that the flu costs employers more than $17 billion. While COVID-19-related productivity losses may be difficult to calculate, the UN has concluded that they are “massive.”
Developing a pan-coronavirus vaccine, however, may prove challenging.
Coronaviruses are a relatively new target for vaccines. First identified in the 1960s, coronaviruses appeared to be more of an annoyance — causing common colds — than a real threat.
The emergence of SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012 changed that impression, but those infections were more constrained than Ebola or Zika would be.
Last year, Cambridge, Mass.-based VBI Vaccines (NASDAQ: VBIV) created a pan-coronavirus vaccine candidate known as VBI-2901 designed to be effective against COVID-19, SARS and MERS. In animal experiments, the vaccine seemed to be effective against those three viruses and a coronavirus linked to the common cold in humans.
Researchers at Caltech recently published a study in Science highlighting the promise of nanoparticles in inducing an immune response to eight coronavirus types.
The Walter Reed Institute of Research and Saint Louis University also will attempt to develop pan-coronavirus vaccines.