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A universal COVID-19 vaccine is designed to be effective against future coronavirus variants. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Research is underway across the nation to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine that would be effective against future coronavirus variants.
  • Part of the research is occurring at three U.S. universities that received $36 million in grants last fall.
  • The U.S. Army is also working on a universal vaccine that involves a specific type of spike protein.
  • Experts say these types of vaccines could also help with other diseases such as influenza and Ebola.

The vaccines for COVID-19 have saved hundreds of thousands of lives nationwide and worldwide.

In developing these safe and highly effective medicines, scientists have achieved in less than a year what can often take decades.

But the limitations of these vaccines and the unpredictability of coronavirus variants are becoming apparent.

That’s why several of the top scientists in the United States have begun working on a new and even more ambitious vaccine technology.

Current vaccines are expected to continue providing protection against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant.

But scientists don’t know how effective the vaccines will be against new variants that might arise.

To address this, researchers are developing universal vaccines that potentially work against all known and unknown variants and can fight multiple coronaviruses at once.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD, a virologist and professor of pathobiological sciences at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is one of the scientists who’s been chosen to take on this task.

Kawaoka told Healthline that he and others are working to make a vaccine that “will work on all coronaviruses and any variants.”

“We have just begun our research, but the concept works,” he added.

The idea, Kawaoka explained, is to generate an even more robust group of vaccines that fight a variety of coronaviruses with a primary focus on potential pandemic-causing coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

“This so-called ‘pan-coronavirus vaccine’ is basically preparing us for the future,” said Kawaoka.

When asked how often this vaccine would likely be given to people, he said, “We do not know yet. But ideally, it would be at most two vaccinations.”

When asked what kind of impact a pan-coronavirus vaccine could have nationwide and worldwide, he said, “I think it would be big.”

The universal vaccine pursuit began last fall when the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), allocated $36 million to three U.S. universities to develop vaccines to protect against multiple types of coronaviruses and all viral variants.

“The available COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be remarkably effective at protecting against severe disease and death,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the NIAID, when announcing the program in September.

The pan-coronavirus vaccine development program funding went to the following:

  • University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts
  • Duke University in North Carolina

Other collaborators include Paul Thomas, PhD, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, and Patrick Wilson, PhD, at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

A key goal of the initiative is to “develop multivalent vaccine platforms and strategies suitable for use in vulnerable populations and to understand vaccine-induced responses and efficacy related to a person’s age or sex,” according to the NIH news release.

The awardees are expected to be flexible in the response to emerging knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 immune responses and factor in new information as vaccines candidates are developed.

The U.S. Army is also developing a pan-coronavirus vaccine by attaching different SARS-CoV-2 spikes to a protein called ferritin.

Last month, preclinical studies at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) showed that the Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle (SpFN) COVID-19 vaccine developed at WRAIR elicits a potent immune response and may also provide broad protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern as well as other coronaviruses.

Scientists in WRAIR’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch developed the SpFN nanoparticle vaccine based on a ferritin platform.

Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, the director of the emerging infectious diseases branch at WRAIR, said in a press statement last month:

“Our strategy has been to develop a ‘pan-coronavirus’ vaccine technology that could potentially offer safe, effective and durable protection against multiple coronavirus strains and species.”

Kawaoka said this research nationwide should also lead to other new vaccines.

“We’re working on COVID and we’re also working now on universal influenza vaccines and on Ebola vaccine clinical trials,” he said.