One step closer to developing a 'universal' coronavirus vaccine

Researchers say a 'next generation vaccine' is critical to getting ahead of COVID-19, as well as the pandemics of the future.

Emma Jones 4 minute read January 11, 2022
filling a syringe with a mock covid-19 vaccine

Researchers have been searching for a way to help the body develop antibodies against many different strains of the virus in a single vaccination. GETTY

News from the U.S. Army indicate that we may be closer to developing a vaccine that is effective against the virus that causes COVID-19 variants and, potentially, other coronaviruses too.

“Our strategy has been to develop a ‘pan-coronavirus’ vaccine technology that could potentially offer safe, effective and durable protection against multiple coronavirus strains and species,” Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, Director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research said in a press release.

While the major COVID-19 vaccines triggered an immune response by introducing a particular identifier called a spike protein (or the mRNA for a particular spike protein) to the body, the Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle COVID-19 vaccine (SpFN) vaccine consists of many different spike proteins on a ferritin nanoparticle. The idea is that exposing the body to a series of different coronavirus identifiers may cause an immune response that is robust enough to protect the body from many different iterations of the virus.

Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses that typically cause respiratory tract infections among other symptoms. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 causes the COVID-19 illness, while SARS-CoV-1 was the culprit behind the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak.

And then there’s the flu shot

The flu shot that many receive each year must be continually updated since the viruses that cause influenza are able to mutate quickly into new forms that aren’t as easily defeated by the antibodies developed in the previous year’s vaccine.

In a similar manner, because SARS-CoV-2 is able to evolve so quickly, the effectiveness of the initial vaccine is weakened, requiring more boosters and potentially, even an updated version. For this reason, researchers have been searching for a way to help the body develop antibodies against many different strains of the virus in a single vaccination while preparing the body for future strains as well.

The study, published in Science Translational Medicine at the end of December, tested the SpFN vaccine in nonhuman primates. They found a two-shot series given 28 days apart caused the development of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 and its variants of concern, as well as SARS-CoV-1.

Data for this study was collected before the Omicron variant took centre stage, and the team is currently testing the vaccine to see if it is still effective against this latest evolution.

Phase 1 human trials for the SpFN vaccine began in April 2021. Early data from this trial is expected in the coming weeks.

On the hunt for a “universal” coronavirus vaccine

Along with his team, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci — who previously called the need for a yearly flu vaccine as “somewhat embarrassing” — has urged the global community to invest in developing universal coronavirus vaccines, and doing away with the yearly flu shot and the litany of COVID boosters.

“We need a research approach that can characterize the global “coronaviral universe” in multiple species, characterize the natural history and pathogenesis of coronaviruses in laboratory animals and in humans, and apply this information in developing broadly protective “universal” vaccines (protecting against all betacoronaviruses, and ideally all coronaviruses),” wrote Fauci, Dr. David Morens and Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger in a perspective piece for the New England Journal of Medicine.

The doctors go on to recommend an international effort to isolate as many examples as possible of viruses found in animals, like bats, in an attempt to find similarities and potential evolutions of these strains.


Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at or on Twitter @jonesyjourn


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