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COVID variants: we spoke to the experts designing a single vaccine to defeat them all

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SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, has turned the world upside down. Experts have predicted that it will claim the lives of between 9-18 million worldwide. This is in addition to destroying the livelihoods, mental health and education of countless others. The pandemic will probably wreak havoc for many years to come, despite the remarkable speed of vaccine development. This is not helped by the emergence of new variants sweeping the world, which pose a serious threat to the success of vaccination and upcoming treatments.

It is difficult to predict the future pattern of SARS-CoV-2. Many scientists believe it will continue to circulate in pockets around the globe, meaning that it will become endemic in the same way as flu. In this context the number of infections remains relatively constant with occasional flare-ups that run the danger of turning into a pandemic. A lot depends on how widely the population around the world can be vaccinated and how long immunity lasts after natural infection or vaccination.

Long term, the best solution would be to develop a universal vaccine – one that would help protect against all current variants of the coronavirus and any others that arise in the future. Without it, the world runs the risk of recurrent pandemics.

Given the difficulties encountered in creating a universal flu vaccine, this may seem a tall order. But a number of scientists believe it is possible based on the rapid development of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.

COVID-19 is in fact the third major infectious disease outbreak to have been triggered in the last two decades by a new coronavirus jumping from animals into humans, the other two being Sars and Mers.

To get a sense of how far a pan-coronavirus vaccine has progressed we spoke to a number of key players in the field. We are both experts in this area but come at it from very different angles – Lara Marks is a historian of medicine with an interest in biotechnology and vaccines, while Ankur Mutreja has experience in tracking outbreaks and developing vaccines for infectious diseases. From our conversations, there appear to be a number of encouraging vaccine candidates on the horizon – it is even possible that one could be developed for use in humans within 12 months.

One of the first people we spoke to was Richard Hatchett, the CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi). Set up in 2017, Cepi is a global partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil society organisations that aims to compress the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases into 100 days – a third of the time achieved with the first COVID-19 vaccines.

Envisaging equitable access to vaccines for all countries, in January 2021, Cepi announced it would raise and invest US$3.5 billion in vaccine research and development to strengthen global preparedness to pandemics, of which US$200 million has been put aside to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine. Such a vaccine would offer protection against a broad range of coronaviruses, regardless of their variants. This would reduce the need to modify the vaccine on a regular basis.

Hatchett described these vaccines as the “holy grail”. But he argued it may take years of investment. He said: “If you want to grow a tree, the best thing to have done is to have planted it 20 years ago. And if you didn’t do that, then the next best thing is to plant it today.”

When asked about what the best vaccine would be going forward to deal with SARS-CoV-2, Hatchett replied:

We do not actually know specifically yet. This is really our first engagement with this virus, obviously, and we’ve watched it expand and unfold over time … We’re still gathering data and gaining experience on this. I think we need to have some humility about what we know currently and what we can know. We just have to be vigilant.

None of the scientists we interviewed were surprised to see SARS-CoV-2 mutating. All viruses mutate. They often undergo random genetic changes because the virus replication machinery is not perfect. It is a bit like a game of “telephone” where children repeat what they thought they heard, making mistakes all along the way so that the final message is very different from the original one. Whenever a virus develops one or more mutations it is considered a “variant” of the original virus.

The mutation process helps viruses to adapt and survive any onslaught from the host’s immune system, vaccination or drug treatment and natural competition. Viruses change faster when under such pressures.

Scientists have been monitoring the genetic variations in SARS-CoV-2 since the start of the pandemic. They do this by sequencing the total RNA (genome) of the virus collected from patient samples. The genome is the complete set of genetic instructions an........

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