UW–Madison researchers lead effort to create a universal coronavirus vaccine

UW–Madison researchers lead effort to create a universal coronavirus vaccine

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, Peter HalfmannViruses can be wily adapters, changing their identities to find new hosts and thwart efforts to stop them. That’s why University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers and their collaborators are making progress toward developing universal vaccines against some the planet’s most harmful pathogens, including the virus family responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last fall, the National Institutes of Health announced it was investing in three teams working to develop a vaccine that would simultaneously work against a broad range of coronaviruses. Among them is a research collaboration, the Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine consortium, led by UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine Professor of Pathobiological Sciences Yoshihiro Kawaoka.

“This pan-coronavirus vaccine is basically preparing for the future,” Kawaoka says.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, belongs to a larger family of coronaviruses that tend to make humans and other animals sick, including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS), both of which are also responsible for epidemics. At least four other coronaviruses infect most people by age 10, causing little more than annoying colds.

Since the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 virus first emerged in late 2019, numerous versions of the virus (variants) have also appeared as the virus replicates, and typos in its genetic code equip it with slightly different properties.

Sometimes, these changes have been consequential, and — as happened with the delta and omicron variants — have become what public health officials call variants of concern. As these variants emerge, experts rush to study whether they will still respond to the countermeasures developed to combat them, including vaccines.

The project led by Kawaoka and his collaborators, totaling about $7 million in funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is looking for a vaccine or vaccines that could train our immune systems to respond to a broader array of coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, and their variants.

“The pan-coronavirus vaccine may not be as effective as a vaccine that is specific for a particular strain, like SARS-CoV-2,” says Kawaoka, but the trade-off for reduced effectiveness is increased coverage.

Adds Peter Halfmann, research associate professor in the Kawaoka lab at the Influenza Research Institute, it would mean “having something ready to go in case something did pop up.”

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