Volunteers are rolling up their sleeves to receive shots of experimental vaccines tailored to beat the omicron variant — just as the winter coronavirus surge begins to relent.
By the time scientists know whether those rebooted vaccines are effective and safe, omicron is expected to be in the rearview mirror. Already, mask mandates are easing. People are beginning to talk about normalcy.
By now, rebooting vaccines to match a new variant is becoming part of scientific muscle memory. Drug companies made vaccines to fight beta, delta and now omicron. None of those shots have been needed yet, but to many scientists, it is a short-term, shortsighted and unsustainable strategy.
“You don’t want to play this whack-a-mole approach,” said David R. Martinez, a viral immunologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This could go on forever.”
They are inventing vaccines designed to foster broad protection — an immunity wall that will repel not only the variants of SARS-CoV-2 that we know about, but those yet to emerge.
At minimum, the world needs a truly variant-proof vaccine. Even better would be a shot that would also stop a future pandemic, protecting against a yet-unknown coronavirus that will jump from animals into people in the years to come.
Flush with the success of the first vaccines, many scientists working on next-generation shots had been thinking big in 2021. Maybe they could make a vaccine that would repel not only SARS-CoV-2 and the original SARS, but also two coronaviruses that cause the common cold, Middle East respiratory syndrome, as well as future bat coronaviruses that could jump into humans.
A New England Journal of Medicine study last year demonstrated that, at least in concept, it was possible to generate broad immune protection against many viruses. Researchers in China showed that survivors of the original SARS outbreak two decades ago who were vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 produced antibodies capable of blocking an array of variants and other coronaviruses.
In the short-term, Haynes’s team is focused on stopping variants. They are manufacturing a vaccine — a nanoparticle with a fragment of the spike dotting its surface. In animal studies, that vaccine triggered broad immune protection against variants, the original SARS virus and bat coronaviruses. Haynes hopes to begin testing it in people this year.
“We’re looking for a tetanus-like shot,” Haynes said. “We all have to get a tetanus shot every 10 years. That would be really terrific.”