The Why Behind a Universal Coronavirus Vaccine

In 2020, COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt and the effects still linger. Economies are stuck; societies are shaken and tragedy lurks around the corner for many. We have seen a complete and utter disruption. What if we could be prepared to fight the next coronavirus pandemic? Yes, there is still hope for this world; history can be stopped from repeating itself. Scientists in Irvine, California, are working on developing a universal vaccine capable of fighting multiple strains of coronaviruses. There is a bustle at the same time in Pennsylvania as Dr. Drew Weissman and researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) work to find the universal coronavirus vaccine.

What is a Universal Vaccine?

The current coronavirus vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer that primarily aim to ward against COVID-19 are less effective against recent permutations of the virus that originated in the UK and South Africa. These vaccines, classed as mRNA (messenger RNA), inject RNA into the body. RNA is the protein that carries information for the body to make the spike protein that is found on the surface of a coronavirus. Once the body makes the protein, the cell recognizes it as an alien element and sends the message to the immune system to start developing antibodies. This way, if the real virus was to enter the body, the antibodies will fight it off. A universal vaccine works on the same principle as this. However, it doesn’t just replicate the outermost spike protein, which happens to vary in different viruses, but also the proteins in the membrane and the envelope of this outer layer—the proteins in these two other areas are similar in many other types of viruses. A universal vaccine could potentially target many viruses of the same family and even viruses that cause the common cold.

The Case for a Universal Vaccine

If the promise of this universal vaccine is so great, then there is no reason that it should not be made. We must remember that the impact of future versions of viruses can be even more severe; this can be seen in faster-spreading strains of COVID-19, like B.1.351, that have shown greater potential to be an intense form of the disease. We must not downplay the effects on the world economy either. A report by the US Congress’s think tank Congressional Research Service in 2020, stated that the impact of the pandemic on global economic growth is estimated at a negative six percent. Pharmaceutical companies are profit-seeking ventures so they may not prioritize the production of a universal vaccine, but governments can step in and approve funding for projects on vaccine research and development.

Unfortunately, Dr. Drew Weissman, the man behind mRNA science who spent nearly a decade perfecting mRNA vaccines for human administration, wasn’t so lucky to get his funding proposal for the universal vaccine approved by NIH, a body under the US Department of Health and Human Services. He had to strive on his own funds to conduct more tests before submitting another proposal earlier in 2021. This has been happening simultaneously with the pursuit of researchers at NIH to find their versions of the universal vaccine. As of now, Dr. Weissman’s solution seems to hold the most potential as experiments on mice have shown that his design works against COVID-19, SARS and two other strains of coronavirus that currently only exist in bats. In the meantime, before the universal vaccine becomes commercially available, the best bet is to rely on booster shots by Moderna and Pfizer that aim to counter evolving variants.

Arslan Ahmed | Contributing Writer