Source: The Daily Beast
The hunt is on for a new kind of Covid vaccine — one that works equally well on current and future forms of the virus. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health in think they’ve found an approach that could lead them to a long-lasting jab. As a bonus, it also might work on other coronaviruses, not just the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID.
The key to the NIH’s potential vaccine design is a part of the virus called the “spine helix” — a coil-shaped structure inside the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it grab onto and infect our cells. Lots of current vaccines target the spike protein, not specifically target the spine helix.
The great thing about the spine helix, from an immunological standpoint, is that it doesn’t mutate. At least, it hasn’t mutated yet, three years into the COVID pandemic. So a vaccine that binds the spine helix in SARS-CoV-2 should hold up for a long time, and should also work on all the other coronaviruses that also include the spine helix.
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. Just 11 targeted the spine helix. But those 11 that went after the spine helix worked better, on average, on four of the coronaviruses.
It’s unclear how they stack up against antibodies that are more specific. In other words, a spine-helix jab might work against a bunch of different but related viruses, but work less well against any one virus than a jab that’s tailored specifically for that virus.
There’s a lot of work to do before a spine-helix vaccine might be available at the corner pharmacy. Additional studies could contradict the NIH team’s results. The new vaccine design might not work as well on people as it does on hamsters. And the harder the pharmaceutical industry has to work to produce a vaccine, and the more vaccine it has to pack into a single dose in order to compensate for lower potency, the less cost-effective a vaccine becomes for mass-production.
Maybe a spine-helix jab is in our future. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s encouraging that scientists are making incremental progress toward a more universal coronavirus vaccine. One that could work for many years on a wide array of related viruses.
COVID for one isn’t going anywhere. And with each mutation, it risks becoming unrecognizable to the current vaccines. What we need is a vaccine that’s mutation-proof.