Doctor giving Covid vaccine to senior woman

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CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Scientists are apparently already preparing for the next coronavirus pandemic. Researchers in the United Kingdom have developed a new vaccine that can provide protection against a wide range of coronaviruses, including future threats we don’t even know about yet. This proactive approach to vaccine development, dubbed “proactive vaccinology,” is aiming to get ahead of the curve by building defenses before another coronavirus strain sweeps across the globe.

The innovative vaccine, revealed in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, works by training the body’s immune system to recognize specific shared genetic material found in eight different coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19), and several others currently circulating in bat populations with the potential to jump to humans. Crucially, these targeted viral regions also appear in many related coronaviruses beyond those included in the vaccine itself.

Think of it like this: several coronavirus strains share many of the same parts, from strains causing the common cold to COVID-19. This new vaccine focuses on all of those shared parts, so even if there’s a coronavirus that doesn’t exist yet, the vaccine may still defeat it if it carries those parts.

“Our focus is to create a vaccine that will protect us against the next coronavirus pandemic, and have it ready before the pandemic has even started,” says Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology, in a media release. “We’ve created a vaccine that provides protection against a broad range of different coronaviruses – including ones we don’t even know about yet.”

Remarkably, while the vaccine does not contain the SARS-CoV-1 virus responsible for the 2003 SARS outbreak, it still triggered an immune response against that pathogen in testing.

An OHSU-led study finds a substantial increase in antibody response to two-dose vaccinations when the vaccine was administered into each arm instead of both vaccines administered into one arm
Researchers in the United Kingdom have developed a new vaccine that can provide protection against a wide range of coronaviruses, including future threats we don’t even know about yet. (credit: OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

“We don’t have to wait for new coronaviruses to emerge. We know enough about coronaviruses, and different immune responses to them, that we can get going with building protective vaccines against unknown coronaviruses now,” says Professor Mark Howarth in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology, senior author of the report.

“Scientists did a great job in quickly producing an extremely effective COVID vaccine during the last pandemic, but the world still had a massive crisis with a huge number of deaths. We need to work out how we can do even better than that in the future, and a powerful component of that is starting to build the vaccines in advance.”

The “Quartet Nanocage” vaccine achieves this broad protection through a novel design centered around a nanoparticle – a tiny ball of proteins held together by extremely strong interactions. Multiple viral antigen chains, engineered to include regions shared across coronaviruses, are attached to this nanoparticle core using a “protein superglue.” When injected, this prompts the immune system to develop antibodies targeting those widespread viral regions.

Importantly, the vaccine raised this broad immune response even in mice previously immunized against SARS-CoV-2, demonstrating its potential as a universal booster shot. Its relatively simple design could also accelerate its path to clinical trials compared to other broad coronavirus vaccines in development.

The breakthrough results from a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and Caltech, building on prior work. While a more complex Oxford/Caltech vaccine is slated for human trials in 2025, manufacturing challenges could limit large-scale production – underscoring the importance of this simplified but powerful vaccine approach.

Traditional vaccines typically target only a single virus, leaving populations vulnerable to the many existing coronaviruses and inevitable future threats still to come. This pioneering proactive strategy aims to overcome that limitation, providing vital preparedness against the next potential pandemic before it even begins.

Article reviewed by StudyFinds Editor Chris Melore.

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