There are at least 500 coronaviruses. We must develop next-gen vaccines now, experts say.

·4 min read

In some ways, we've been lucky with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus that causes it is highly contagious but not as lethal as others in its coronavirus family. The initial SARS virus killed roughly 1 in 10 of those infected; a relative called Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, still kills 1 in 3.

But we may not always be so lucky. With animals, including bats, colonized by hundreds of coronaviruses, another one might come along with the infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 and the death rate of MERS.

Hoping to prevent that, scientists on Tuesday unveiled a "road map" for developing a new vaccine that would be broadly protective against all coronaviruses.

If given ahead of time, such a vaccine could ideally avoid a future pandemic from this kind of virus, said Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, which is helping lead the effort.

"Can we achieve that? We don't know," he said. "We won't know until we try."

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Need for new vaccines

The vaccines developed to fight COVID-19 "are remarkable" but have limits, said Dr. Bruce Gellin, chief of global public health strategy for The Rockefeller Foundation's Pandemic Prevention Institute.

"We want to be more prepared and not chasing viruses (or variants) as they emerge," he said.

The Rockefeller group and the Gates Foundation are partners in the initiative with Osterholm's center, which has helped develop similar road maps for influenza, Ebola, Marburg, Lassa and Zika viruses.

By combining efforts, the three organizations hope it will inspire others to join the effort and "compress the timeline" needed to develop next-generation safe, effective vaccines, Gellin said.

The U.S. government set aside $10 billion early in the pandemic to develop and purchase the current generation of vaccines. There has been no similar effort for the next generation.

"It's all about time," Gellin said. "How much can you do now that will shorten the time when you need it?"

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What's in the road map?

The map includes timelines and targets for five major goals:

  1. Understand coronaviruses in nature to figure out the range of protection needed for future vaccines.

  2. Develop vaccines that will provide safe, long-lasting protection against the full family of coronaviruses and that can be manufactured at scale across the world.

  3. Better understand the immune response to vaccines to speed development.

  4. Develop animal models to test vaccine candidates.

  5. Encourage political support and funding.

The road map lays out strategies and milestones for achieving each of these goals. For instance, by 2024, the group wants to establish a collaborative international surveillance program to quickly identify, characterize and share information on SARS-CoV-2 variants, similar to the way the World Health Organization tracks flu variants.

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What a future vaccine might look like

The plan lays out three possible visions for future vaccines.

First is a vaccine given as part of a routine childhood or adult vaccination programs that would protect against variants of the current SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as other coronaviruses that may come along.

Second is the use of vaccines as part of a pandemic preparedness strategy, making available vaccines that could protect against novel coronaviruses. These vaccines could be stockpiled to quickly interrupt transmission and prevent an outbreak from turning into a global pandemic.

A third option might be a combination of the two, in which routine vaccinations could be provided to those at high risk for severe disease or exposure to a new virus, such as health care workers, with more vaccines in reserve in case of an outbreak.

All three would have to be affordable and usable in all parts of the world, including low-income countries; be able to prevent severe disease and, ideally, transmission; protect against a wide range of coronaviruses; provide protection for at least a year; and be safe for everyone, including children, pregnant people and people who are immunocompromised.

What's next?

Everyone wants to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic, but no one wants to ever be in this situation again. The goal of the road map, Gellin said, is "keep our guard when the appetite and resources for doing it are less than they were during the full-fledged emergency."

While the map lays out the route, it doesn't assign specific responsibilities, nor can it require anyone to take action, Osterholm said.

But at least it can help government, philanthropists and researchers understand what is happening and what needs to happen next, he said.

"Everybody has a fully transparent view of what needs to be done and what's getting done – or what's not getting done."

Contact Karen Weintraub at kweintraub@usatoday.com.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Future coronavirus outbreaks: We must start developing vaccines now