Vaccine breakthrough could finally bring Covid to its knees

Photo illustration by Erin O'Flynn / The Daily Beast / Getty

Photo illustration by Erin O’Flynn / The Daily Beast / Getty

With new COVID variants and subvariants developing faster and faster, each reducing the effectiveness of major vaccines, the hunt is on for a new type of vaccine – one that will target current and future forms of the novel coronavirus alike. works reasonably well.

Now researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland think they’ve found a new approach to vaccine design that could make them a longer-lasting vaccine. As a bonus, it may also work on other coronaviruses, not just the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

The NIH team reported its findings in a peer-reviewed study published in the journal cell host and microbe Earlier this month.

Key to NIH’s potential vaccine design is a part of the virus called the “spine helix.” It’s the coil-shaped structure inside the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it capture and infect our cells.

Many existing vaccines target the spike protein. But none of them specifically target the spine helix. And yet, there are good reasons to focus on that part of the pathogen. While many regions of the spike protein are greatly altered when the virus mutates, the spine helix Not there,

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Joshua Tan, lead scientist on the NIH team, told The Daily Beast that this gives scientists “hope that an antibody that targets this region will be more durable and more broadly effective.”

Vaccines that target and “bind” to the receptor-binding domain region of the spike protein may lose effectiveness if the virus evolves within that region. The best thing about the spine helix from an immunological point of view is that it doesn’t mutate. At least it hasn’t mutated So farThree years into the COVID pandemic.

So a vaccine that binds to the spine helix in SARS-CoV-2 should have a long shelf life. And it should also work on all other coronaviruses that contain the spiny helix — and there are dozens of them, including many like SARS-CoV-1 and MERS that have already jumped from animal populations and into people. have become the cause of the outbreak.

To test their hypothesis, the NIH researchers extracted antibodies from 19 recovered COVID patients and tested them on samples from five different coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS. Of the 55 different antibodies, most focus on parts of the virus that mutate a lot. Only 11 targeted the Spine Helix.

But the 11 who went after the spine helix did a better job on four coronaviruses, on average. (A fifth virus, HCoV-NL63, elicits all antibodies.) The NIH team isolated the best spine-helix antibody, COV89-22, and tested it on hamsters infected with the latest subvariant of the omicron variant of COVID . The team found, “Hamsters treated with COV89-22 showed a lower pathology score.”

The results are promising. “These findings … identify a class of antibodies that broadly neutralize [coronaviruses] by targeting the stem helix,” the researchers wrote.

Don’t break out the Champagne completely just yet. The NIH team cautioned, “Although these data are useful for vaccine design, we did not perform vaccination experiments in this study and thus cannot draw any definite conclusions regarding the efficacy of stem helix-based vaccines.”

It’s one thing to test some antibodies on hamsters. It’s quite another to develop, run trials and get approval for a whole new class of vaccine. “It’s really tough and most things that start out as good ideas fail for one reason or another,” James Lawler, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.

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and whereas spine-helix antibodies appear Roughly speaking While effective, it’s unclear how they stack up against more specific antibodies. In other words, a spine-helix jab may work against a group of different but related viruses, but work less well against a single virus than a jab made specifically for that virus. . Tan said of the spine-helix antibodies, “more experiments need to be done to evaluate whether they will be sufficiently protective in humans.”

There’s a lot of work to do before the Spine-Helix vaccine is available at the corner pharmacy. There are many other things that can derail that work. Additional studies may contradict the NIH team’s results. The new vaccine design may not work as well on humans as it does on hamsters.

The new jab may also be unsafe, impractical to produce, or too expensive for widespread distribution. Duke University immunologist Barton Haynes told The Daily Beast that he looked at spine-helix vaccine designs last year and concluded they would be too expensive to warrant major investment. The main problem, he said, is that the spine-helix antibodies are less potent and “harder to induce” from their parental B-cells.

The harder the pharmaceutical industry has to work to produce a vaccine, and the more vaccine has to be packed into a single dose to compensate for the reduced capacity, the less cost-effective a vaccine becomes for mass production. Is.

Maybe the spine-helix jab is in our future. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s encouraging that scientists are making incremental progress toward a more universal coronavirus vaccine. One that could work for many years on a wide range of related viruses.

COVID for one is not going anywhere. And with each mutation, it runs the risk of becoming unrecognizable to current vaccines. We need a vaccine that is mutation-proof.

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