The first COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time as researchers and regulators collaborated with unprecedented efficiency. Instead of working through each step of the vaccine process in sequence, scientists were able to run trials in parallel – saving precious time.
The vaccines were designed to target the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 found in Wuhan at the end of 2019. Since then, multiple variants of the virus have emerged, including Delta which is currently dominant in Europe, and a new variant of concern known as Omicron. With each new variant comes a key question: will immunity – whether from vaccines or naturally acquired through infection – protect against the latest form of the virus.
Scientists have said an updated version of the vaccine could be developed and tested in weeks, with politicians and regulators saying shorter trials will suffice, if developers are tweaking one of the existing approved vaccines.
This is good news as it means the world could respond swiftly if a new variant could evade the immune response triggered by current vaccines. However, there is an even more tantalising line of study: the development of a ‘variant-proof’ COVID-19 vaccine.
CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, has unveiled a new $200 million research programme to support the question for vaccines that provide broad protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants and other betacoronaviruses. Researchers in Israel and Canada are now studying ways of creating such a game-changing vaccine that would be suitable for use in low- and middle-income countries. One of the teams to receive backing from CEPI is exploring how an oral vaccine booster could top up the immune system and prepare it to fight a range of similar viruses.
Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, said the proposed vaccines could ultimately provide broad protection against COVID-19, but also against viruses such as SARS and MERS. ‘In countries with sufficient access to them, vaccines are now breaking the link between COVID-19 infection and severe illness or death, and enabling life to return to something approaching normality,’ he said. ‘But the threat of new variants emerging which can evade the protection of our current vaccines and set the global response back to square one continues to hang over us all.’
The stress that the pandemic has put on global health and science has been significant but has also inspired a wave of innovation that could deliver advances against a range of infectious diseases.
Last month, Vaccines Today explored the Future of Immunisation at a webinar attended by several experts. One of the key themes to emerge was the acceleration in research activity on a host of issues, including variant-proof COVID vaccines, universal flu vaccines, and therapeutic vaccines, as well as new ways to deliver vaccines orally, through the nasal passage and under the outer layer of skin.
The pandemic was deeply unwelcome, but has unleashed a new era in vaccine technology that could benefit public health for decades to come.