The U.S. Army has launched clinical testing for its ‘next-generation’ COVID-19 vaccine that’s designed to protect against the pandemic virus, its variants and other coronaviruses.
In early tests, the shot appears to prompt high levels of antibodies that should block the older ‘wild-type’ coronavirus, three major variants and even SARS-CoV-1, the similar pathogen that triggered the SARS epidemic in 2002.
Developed at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), the shot could have the potential to prevent future viruses from setting off pandemics, the scientists behind it hope.
Its first clinical trial, launched this week, will test the shot in 72 health volunteers between ages 18 and 55.
US Army scientists have launched clinical trials in 72 participants for its coronavirus vaccine which triggered antibodies to multiple variants in early tests – and could even work broadly enough to prevent illness from future coronaviruses and their variants (file)
The three COVID-19 vaccines available under emergency use authorization (EUA) in the U.S. are highly effective against the form that was spreading like wildfire in 2020.
But the UK’s more infectious B117 variant is now dominant in the U.S., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials announced Wednesday.
Vaccines still protect against B117, but new threats have emerged.
Variants first identified in South Africa, Brazil, New York, California and India all have mutations that make scientists worry the variants could evade antibodies triggered by the vaccines.
So far, all three vaccines authorized in the U.S. – as well as AstraZeneca’s beleaguered shot – appear to be weakened by, but still protective against, variants from South Africa and Brazil, which were the cause for greatest concern.
And data released Wednesday suggests that Moderna’s vaccine works against the California variant.
If Moderna’s vaccine can stop the variant, it’s likely Pfizer’s can as well, because the two shots use the same type of technology.
But all of these shots work by targeting the so-called ‘spike’ protein.
The spike protein sticks out from the surface of the virus, and allows it to break into and infect human cells.
Current vaccines trigger antibodies designed to stick to this spike, deactivating or at least weakening its ability to bind to receptors on the surface of human cells.
But viruses are constantly mutating, and this region of the virus is particularly prone to evolve.
Vaccines can be updated to counter these mutations, but that could mean an infinite loop of booster shots.
And viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, are making the jump from animals to humans more frequently, raising the global risk of more pandemics.
So the Army is taking a different approach with the hopes of addressing the current pandemic, its evolution, and potentially future ones.
‘That’s why we need a vaccine like this: one that has potential to protect broadly and proactively against multiple coronavirus species and strains,’ said Dr Kayvon Modjarrad, director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch (EIDB) at WRAIR who leads the Army’s COVID-19 vaccine research.
‘Even before recent COVID-19 variants were identified, our team was concerned about the emergence of new coronaviruses in human populations, a threat that has been accelerating in recent years.’
Global disease experts have been on elevated alert for years.
So, ideally, universal vaccines against entire types of pathogens could help the world be prepared for virtually any threat, before it reaches pandemic proportions.
To do that, the technology used by the Army – known as a ferritin nanoparticle vaccine platform – allows tiny harmless pieces of a virus or viruses to be attached to the round surface of the vehicle and delivered into the body.
That vehicle is the ferritin nanoparticle, a tiny particle that contains iron. Most vaccines, like those made by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, use a harmless virus as the vehicle. MRNA shots like Moderna’s and Pfizer’s deliver a piece of genetic code for coronavirus’s spike protein to tech the body to make this protein and antibodies against it.
But the military’s vaccine could trigger broader protection and, because it uses a simpler iron nanoparticle, would not need to be stored at temperatures as cold as those required for the currently authorized shots.
And it could be developed much more quickly.
Early tests showed that the same Army-developed vaccine triggered high levels of neutralizing antibodies to the variants, as well as the 2002 SARS virus.
Early research on these types of vaccines suggests that they trigger equally strong, if not stronger immune responses compared to other vaccine platforms – and do so with fewer side effects.
Now, it just has to prove its mettle in clinical trials.
‘We are in this for the long haul,’ said Dr Modjarrad.
‘We have designed and positioned this platform as the next generation vaccine, one that paves the way for a universal vaccine to protect against not only the current virus, but also counter future variants, stopping them in their tracks before they can cause another pandemic.’