Vaccine breakthrough could finally bring COVID to its knees

Photo illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

Photo illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

With new variants and subvariants of COVID evolving faster and faster, each reducing the efficacy of major vaccines, the search is on for a new type of vaccine, one that works equally well in current and future forms. of the new coronavirus.

Now, researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland believe they have found a new approach to vaccine design that could lead to a long-lasting shot. As a bonus, it could also work with other coronaviruses, not just the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID.

The NIH team reported their findings in a peer-reviewed study that appeared in the journal host cell and microbe earlier this month.

The key to the potential NIH vaccine design is a part of the virus called the “backbone helix.” It’s a spiral-shaped structure inside the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it latch onto and infect our cells.

Many current vaccines target the spike protein. But none of them specifically target the spine helix. And yet there are good reasons to focus on that part of the pathogen. While many regions of the spike protein tend to change a lot as the virus mutates, the backbone helix No.

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That gives scientists “hope that an antibody targeting this region will be more durable and broadly effective,” Joshua Tan, lead scientist on the NIH team, told The Daily Beast.

Vaccines that target and “bind” to, for example, the receptor-binding domain region of the spike protein could lose efficacy if the virus evolves within that region. The good thing about the spine helix, from an immunological point of view, is that it doesn’t mutate. At least it hasn’t mutated. eventhree years after the COVID pandemic.

So a vaccine that binds to the spinal helix in SARS-CoV-2 should hold up for a long time. And it should also work on all the other coronaviruses that also include the spinal helix, and there are dozens of them, including several like SARS-CoV-1 and MERS that have already made the leap from animal populations and caused outbreaks in the people.

To test their hypothesis, the NIH researchers extracted antibodies from 19 recovering COVID patients and tested them on samples of five different coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1, and MERS. Of the 55 different antibodies, most zeroed in on parts of the virus that tend to mutate a lot. Only 11 aimed at the propeller of the column.

But the 11 that went after the spinal helix performed better, on average, on four of the coronaviruses. (A fifth virus, HCoV-NL63, ignored all antibodies.) The NIH team isolated the best spinal helix antibody, COV89-22, and also tested it in hamsters infected with the latest subvariants of the Omicron variant of COVID. “Hamsters treated with COV89-22 showed a reduced pathology score,” the team found.

The results are promising. “These findings identify a class of…antibodies that broadly neutralize [coronaviruses] by targeting the stem propeller,” the researchers wrote.

Don’t open the champagne yet. “Although these data are useful for vaccine design, we have not performed vaccination experiments in this study and therefore cannot draw any definitive conclusions regarding the efficacy of stem-helix-based vaccines,” the team cautioned. from the NIH.

It’s one thing to test some antibodies in hamsters. Another is to develop, test, and get approval for a new class of vaccine. “It’s really hard and most things that start out as good ideas fail for one reason or another,” James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.

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And although spinal helix antibodies appear to be usually effective, it is not clear how they compare with antibodies that are more specific. In other words, a spinal helix injection might work against a bunch of different but related viruses, but it works less well against any virus than an injection designed specifically for that virus. “More experiments need to be done to test whether they will be protective enough in humans,” Tan said of the antibodies against the spinal helix.

There is a lot of work to be done before a spinal helix vaccine is available at the corner drugstore. And there are many things that could derail that job. Additional studies could contradict the NIH team’s results. The new vaccine design might not work as well in people as it does in hamsters.

The new jab could also prove unsafe, impractical to produce, or too expensive for widespread distribution. Barton Haynes, an immunologist at Duke University, told The Daily Beast that he reviewed spinal helix vaccine designs last year and concluded they would be too expensive to justify a significant investment. The main problem, he said, is that the spinal helix antibodies are less potent and “difficult to induce” from their parent B cells.

The harder the pharmaceutical industry has to work to produce a vaccine, and the more vaccine has to be packed into a single dose to make up for the lower potency, the less profitable a vaccine becomes for mass production.

Maybe a spinal helix jab is in our future. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s encouraging that scientists are making increasing progress toward a more universal coronavirus vaccine. One that could work for many years on a wide range of related viruses.

COVID for one is not going anywhere. And with each mutation, you risk becoming unrecognizable to current vaccines. What we need is a mutation-proof vaccine.

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