A Universal Vaccine to Be Created?

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I know; we’ve been talking about vaccines for years now. And to be clear, we have. Since March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit America’s shores in earnest, getting a vaccine for the disease was all just about anyone could talk about.

A year later, when one was actually created, it became even more discussed. Of course, a lot of that revolved around politics.

But now, with the pandemic waning, the topic might come back to the forefront of our conversations. Why? Thanks to recent discoveries, there is talk about another and much more universal vaccine being created to combat coronaviruses.

Now, to understand all of this, you must first realize that COVID-19 is a specific virus caused by coronaviruses. These cause things like the common cold and up to 26 percent of all known upper respiratory tract infections. Chances are, if you’re over two years old, you’ve come into contact with at least one coronavirus in your life.

Doctors and scientists have known they existed since the 1960s. But because viruses like the common cold don’t often cause death, finding a cure or vaccine has never been a major priority. Of course, that all changed when COVID emerged.

And so scientists have been working on a vaccine.

Now, you know that technically we already have COVID vaccines. These are supposed to help the body fight against specific disease trains, such as Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron.

Some are more susceptible to the vaccine than others. Alpha, for example, only moderately resisted the antibodies the body naturally tries to create in its defense. Delta, and especially Omicron, resist much more, though, making the use of the current vaccines not so reliant.

New research aims to create one that combats all variants, even for coronaviruses that cause the common cold or may mutate in the future.

According to a new study in Science Translational Medicine, researchers in England might have found out how to do so. The team at the Francis Crick Institute has found that a specific protein found in coronaviruses may be helpful.

It’s called the spike or S protein. It was technically discovered years ago when science first learned of coronaviruses and began studying them. This specific protein allows the virus, whether COVID or the common cold, to attach itself to the membrane of host cells and then infiltrate itself further.

As I mentioned above, the body naturally creates antibodies to fight these s proteins off and prevent them from attaching. The problem is that this S protein can also mutate very quickly, making it harder for the body to create the right kind of antibody or at least one that is strong enough to ward it off.

However, this team found that these annoying mutations usually occur within one specific area of the S protein, the S1 subunit. This is true even for those coronavirus strains that cause the cold and other lesser viruses. What doesn’t really change about the S protein is what is called the S2 subunit. In nearly all variants of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID) and the cold-causing strains, the S2 subunit remains stable and relatively unchanging.

And this is exactly why team members like Kevin Ng think the S2 subunit could be the key to creating a universal coronavirus vaccine.

As Ng said in a recent press release, “The S2 area of the spike protein is a promising target for a potential pan-coronavirus vaccine because this area is much more similar across different coronaviruses than the S1 area. It is less subject to mutations, and so a vaccine targeted at this area should be more robust.”

George Kassiotis, Ng’s adviser and professor of retrovirology, agrees. He noted that while the current vaccines target the much more unstable and prone to mutations part of the protein, one aimed at the S2 could offer much more protection, even against future coronaviruses.

The trick now is to find a way to isolate this S2 region. According to studies, this is a bit difficult, as it has to be done within a certain time frame – after it has bonded to the cell, but before it enters it. But it was done in 2002 during the SARS epidemic and more recently during COVID, so it’s not impossible.

In any case, it looks like we may soon have another vaccine made available to us and one that supposedly is much more viable.