How far off is a variant-proof Covid-19 vaccine?

Efforts to develop a “holy grail” vaccine that would be effective against all future Covid variants are under way but it could be years until such a jab is ready for widespread use.

Although new Covid vaccines can now be developed within weeks to protect against an emerging variant, scientists hope to develop a single vaccine that would work against any conceivable mutation of Covid-19.

The first wave of vaccines were designed to neutralise the original viral strain, originally identified in Wuhan. Scientists are now working to develop a jab that would offer long-term immunity, whatever new variants come along.

However, how quickly they can achieve this is another question. For generations, scientists have struggled in vain to create a broadly protective vaccine against mutations of influenza.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has launched a $200m research programme to explore vaccines that provide broad protection against future variants, said Vaccines Today.

The Financial Times reported that one potential jab is being developed by DIOSynVax, a biotech company headed by University of Cambridge professor Jonathan Heeney. Meanwhile, trials for a “variant-proof” booster vaccine began in Manchester last year. Bolton-based couple Andrew and Helen Clarke, aged 63 and 64 respectively, were the first trial participants to receive the nascent jab.

CBS News reported last month that T-cells generated as part of the body’s natural immune response to the common cold may provide a breakthrough. Researchers at Imperial College London said a study could help scientists create vaccines that remain more effective against new variants of the coronavirus.

They found that 26 people who were exposed to Covid-19 but did not fall ill had significantly higher cross-reactive T-cells, generated by previous common colds, than those who did become ill with Covid.

“The fact that (the T-cells) can attack the internal proteins of each of these related viruses [COVID-19 variants] means that they give what’s called a broad cross-protection,” Professor Aljit Lalvani said. “That’s in sharp contrast to the surface spike protein, which is the target of antibodies induced by [current] vaccines.”

He said the study’s results are “a definitive green light” to develop a “T-cell inducing vaccine to internal core proteins, which should protect against current and future variants”.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US military is also testing a vaccine designed to protect against all variants, reported Quartz.

The Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle (SpFN) vaccine was successfully tested on animals last year and phase one trials had positive results that are under review, said one of the team. Next, it will undergo phase two and phase three trials where researchers can determine its efficacy.

Elsewhere in the US, Barton Haynes, director of the Human Vaccine Institute at Duke University School of Medicine, and his team are working on a vaccine that triggers neutralising antibodies and other immune responses to all the Sars-Cov-2 variants to date. Haynes hopes it will also work against variants that appear in the near future.

However, a variant-proof jab is not expected any time soon. Cepi’s aim is to have proof of concept for such a jab “in the 2023 timeframe”. Melanie Saville, director of vaccine research and development, told the FT it would then take another year or two to be licensed for use.

Therefore, for a truly protective vaccine, “we’re really looking in the timeframe of 2024 to 2025… so it is a long haul”, she added. Anthony Fauci, US president Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, agreed that it will take a while. “You’re not going to hit a home run the first time up, that’s for sure,” he said.


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