Imagine how differently the past year of our lives would have gone if we already had a vaccine that prevented SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
That's what scientists want to be the case next time a dangerous coronavirus rolls around. Multiple teams of researchers from various institutions are working on universal coronavirus vaccines, New Scientist reports, and clinical experiments on human volunteers could begin as soon as this year.
If they work, these vaccines could protect people against COVID-19 as well as other coronaviruses like SARS, MERS, and even some of the viruses that cause the common cold.
Conserv Bioscience, a biotech company based in the United Kingdom, has developed and is ready to start an mRNA vaccine that CEO Kimbell Duncan told New Scientist is expected to protect against the full spectrum of coronaviruses. The ultimate goal, Duncan said, is to develop a booster that can be administered every few years to prevent future pandemics. Other researchers, like University of North Carolina School of Medicine epidemiologist Ralph Baric, are working on their own vaccines as well.
That's a tantalizing goal matched only by how challenging it would be to pull it off. Coronaviruses share some similarities, like the spike proteins that help them infect and invade target cells, but a universal vaccine would need to find some aspect of coronaviruses that's not only identical or at least highly similar across the board but also crucial to all of their survival.
Scientists have been talking about universal coronavirus vaccines for years, according to New Scientist, so there is some progress to draw on. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic made the matter far more urgent.
"It's very easy to imagine highly pathogenic coronavirus strains with 10-to-15 percent mortality rate that are nearly as transmissible as COVID-19," Baric told New Scientist. "There's some serious threat out there and we really, really need to pay attention to it."
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READ MORE: First universal coronavirus vaccine will start human trials this year [New Scientist]
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