Scientists around the world are racing to find a universal or "pan"-coronavirus vaccine to protect against future outbreaks after the pandemic revealed just how easily coronaviruses can mutate to become even more deadly.
It’s a seemingly impossible task, but researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology are trying, and they just got some major help from the federal government.
“Coronavirus, for us, has meant working seven days a week since February 2020. It's meant not having dinner with my family. It's meant not being home for them,” said Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., the La Jolla Institute for Immunology's President and CEO.
Saphire said she and her team of over 30 scientists make the sacrifices for the chance at a normal future.
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She said SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, will eventually become endemic, meaning it’ll be “a permanent part of the human existence” and symptoms may one day present as a common cold, but Saphire said that doesn’t mean we can’t fight back.
“There are multiple coronaviruses in the world. There are lots of coronaviruses that emerged 800 years ago and may have caused pandemics then, but recirculate every year as common colds,” she said. “We knew that we would need vaccines to last a long time so we wouldn’t need to scramble to make a new vaccine every year, we wouldn't need to go through more and more cycles of shutdowns. We just can't have that again.”
It’s that drive that’s inspired the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to give Saphire's team more than $2.6 million to develop a universal or so-called “pan” coronavirus vaccine that could be effective for COVID-19 and future pandemics.
The full federal grant lasts five years, with additional funding to arrive in year four and Saphire's team’s project is a key part of a larger, nearly $12 million effort led by Boston’s Brigham and Women's Hospital called "Discovering Durable Pan-Coronavirus Immunity."
Saphire told NBC 7 her team is using antibody samples from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to find sites on the SARS-CoV-2 structure that could also be targeted on other types of coronaviruses through a new vaccine.
“Coronaviruses all have a common structure and some different aspects on the surface. It's like the same kind of cake, but different kinds of frosting,” she explained. “We don't know what the next pandemics will be, but we know the human immune response system can and will respond. We need to understand what aspects of the immune response are in common among all these different viruses and how we can build upon that to protect against not just the ones circulating right now, but something else that might emerge in the future.”
And the team has already made a groundbreaking discovery.
“What we've discovered so far is how to engineer the molecule that should be the material in the vaccine…so that vaccine may not need too many boosters,” she said.
Saphire said there’s no way to even measure how helpful Coronavirus vaccines have been so far, but added there’s always room for improvement.
“The first vaccines out of the starting gates are letting us go back to work and go back to school and interact with people again,” she said. “But with our better understanding of now looking at the people that have mounted strong protective responses and understanding what is similar and what is different with the other coronaviruses, we have an opportunity to make a more lasting benefit…to make a vaccine that's going to last for a long period of time and give us more durable protection.”
Saphire said the faith the country’s leading scientists are putting in her team only feeds her team's drive to prevent the next pandemic.
“We're going to tell our grandkids, ‘Remember 2020 when the world completely shut down and how that transformed what we do?’ Well, we all made a solemn vow to ourselves that we're never going to do that again,” she said.