Japanese experts from the University of Osaka are reportedly closer than ever to developing a unique vaccine against three coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins as well as Sars-CoV-2 and Sars-CoV-1.
In other words, these scientists have gotten really close to creating a shot that can prevent infection with COVID-19 but also a pretty wide range of other coronaviruses, and this could be revolutionary!
After all, researchers in this field have been trying to develop a single, widely applicable vaccine since the ones already in use at the moment have proven to be more or less effective depending on the vSars-CoV-2 variants emerging.
If approved, the new shot could be effective not only against COVID-19 but also against other future pandemics caused by completely different viruses from the coronavirus family.
This is because the immune response supposedly resulting from this shot will give you cross-immunity to other viral infections as well due to the fact that coronaviruses share some basic parts.
Typically, vaccination induced immunity includes the production of antibodies against a certain head region of the virus, which causes the vaccination to only be effective against a certain strain.
But the researchers at Osaka University managed to get around this by genetically engineering the spike protein’s receptor-binding domain to have sugar molecules attached to the virus’ head region.
This strategy was experimented on mice, the animals being exposed to these genetically modified proteins.
What the Japanese scientists were able to find was that the mice which received these proteins managed to produce a larger quantity of antibodies against the core region instead of the head region of a virus as it would normally happen with a typical vaccine.
These antibodies they produced are known in the scientific field as “broadly neutralizing antibodies,” and the tests were able to determine that they neutralize not only Sars-CoV-2, but also Sars-CoV-1, the latter of which led to the 2002 Sars outbreak.
But that is not all! As mentioned before, they also neutralized three more coronaviruses with the same efficiency.
These other viruses are mostly found in pangolins and bats but it is believed that they could also infect humans in the future, so this discovery could prevent future pandemics.
Prof Tomohiro Kurosaki, from the WPI Immunology Frontier Research Centre at Osaka University is one of the researchers involved in this study and he explained: “Given that prior coronavirus epidemics such as Sars-CoV-1 and Mers-CoV [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome] have occurred due to coronaviruses crossing the species barrier, the potential for the emergence of similar viruses in the future poses a real threat to global public health, even in the face of some effective vaccines for the current viruses.”
As demonstrated by recent data, the current vaccines are less effective against emerging variants such as the Delta variant, so it is quite obvious that their immunity is not general, but specific.
Of course, as the virus transforms and mutates, new vaccines that target them are also being developed, but the process takes time as well as willingness from people to get revaccinated which is quite tricky.
As a result, having a universal vaccine against all, or at least most, coronaviruses would be a much better option.
Unfortunately, we are not there yet.
Due to the fact that there are so many challenges in ensuring that cross immunity is durable and broad enough to prevent future strains of the virus, other scientists think that properly developing a universal vaccine could take years of research.
Infectious diseases specialist at Cardiff University in the UK, Dr Andrew Freedman, who was not directly involved in the Osaka University study, says that it is “probably realistic” to believe that developing a universal vaccine is possible.
“There’s almost certainly cross-immunity. We know you can get repeated coronavirus infections, so immunity is not perfect, but part of the immune response to one coronavirus will almost certainly give you cross-immunity to other coronaviruses. There are shared parts of coronaviruses.”
However, while he admitted he is yet to look into the latest study, he warned that since it was only tested on mice, “there would be a long way to go” before actually creating a universal shot that can be used on humans safely and efficiently.