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New Study Shows Hope For A Vaccine That Would Prevent Multiple Coronaviruses At Once

David Martinez, pictured here in a lab at the Michael Hooker Research Building on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on June 9, 2021
David Martinez, pictured here in a lab at the Michael Hooker Research Building on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on June 9, 2021

New research from scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows promise for a vaccine that aims to protect people from COVID-19, its variants, and other coronaviruses known to pose a threat to humans.

The study published in the Journal Sciencegives hope to the idea of stopping multiple coronaviruses with a single vaccine — some refer to the idea as a "universal vaccine." Since the 2003 SARS outbreak and current COVID-19 pandemic both emerged from the same subgenus of coronaviruses, researchers say creating that vaccine may be more important than ever.

The new research shows the vaccine protected mice against SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that spreads COVID-19, and other coronaviruses known to jump from animals to humans and viewed by some scientists as some of the largest threats for future pandemics.

Researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University School of Medicine, and University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine contributed to the study. David Martinez of UNC-Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health is a lead author, along with prominent coronavirus researcher Ralph Baric.

"The same vaccine can actually protect against the original SARS from 2003, as well as zoonotic or coronaviruses from animal sources such as bats," Martinez says.

The vaccine works by targeting a shared trait among the viruses.

"It does so by essentially teaching the immune system to not just recognize a single virus, but also to recognize multiple viruses that are, again, close cousins of the COVID-19 virus," says Martinez.

Martinez says the fact that variants of SARS-CoV-2 and some cousins are so closely related makes it easier to create a vaccine that stops them all, compared to vaccines for influenza or HIV/AIDS which vary much more widely.

That means, if further trials go well, it could be the kind of vaccine you stockpile and have ready in case another virus spreads in humans. At that point, instead of having to rely on catching up with creating a vaccine from scratch, the hope would be to distribute the vaccine and see how it does against the real virus, in real people.

If it helped stop the spread of a virus regionally, it could prevent a SARS-CoV-3 pandemic.

In order for that to work, Martinez says, humans would have to be lucky that the virus that does jump to people and poses a threat would be from that same subgenus of coronaviruses the vaccine could protect against — sarbecoviruses.

"By the same token I would say we should be thinking about investing in universal vaccination strategies for the future so that we don't have to get lucky but we actually are just prepared," Martinez said.

Martinez said there are 24 branches of viruses that are known to infect humans, and it isn't just coronaviruses that pose a risk. He says we should prepare to prevent outbreaks from as many of them as possible.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio