The emergence of the COVID-19 virus has proved to be quite problematic. The pandemic resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. It also overwhelmed healthcare systems, supply chains, and economic viability for many businesses. Despite the rapid development of a vaccine through innovative techniques, COVID continued to adapt and spread. Now, we are dealing with its latest variant, Omicron, which looks to be the most contagious strain yet. While Omicron looks to be milder in severity, it nonetheless appears resistant to existing vaccines and boosters. This is why some are pursuing the development of a single vaccine against all COVID strains as a long-term goal.
At Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, scientists have been working on a single vaccine against all COVID variant. Rather than targeting the most recent strain of the coronavirus, the Army’s own vaccine takes a broader look. Viruses, by nature, constantly mutate and change in order to evolve and survive. Thus, such changes are not only likely but inevitable. As a result, any long-term solution must consider this and create a way to neutralize emerging forms. The Army’s own vaccine looks to do just that by targeting a variety of different strains at once. While human trials are still ongoing, evidence suggests a single vaccine against all COVID types may be around the corner. Notably, this could be a game-changer that may ultimately end the pandemic.
“The threat from COVID-19 continues as it evolves, and eventually there will be other emerging disease threats. Our investment in developing a next generation vaccine is an important step towards getting ahead of COVID-19 and future disease threats.” – Dr. Nelson Michael, Director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research
The Evolution of the COVID-19 Variants
Since the initial outbreak of the original COVID-19 virus, a series of mutations have since occurred. This among other things have led to many vaccine challenges. The initial mutation involved the Alpha variant that ran rampant in the United Kingdom. This was then followed by Delta, which was more infectious and spread more rapidly. Now, the world is experiencing the rapid spread of the Omicron strain of the virus. According to the most recent CDC data, Omicron accounts for about two-thirds of COVID cases in the U.S. And all the remaining ones are Delta variant cases. This has developed despite roughly 70 percent of the population being vaccinated. This highlights not only how quickly mutations occur but also their resistance to existing vaccines.
With this in mind, it’s reassuring that the Army has been aggressively pursuing a single vaccine against all COVID strains. The Army’s own vaccine has already been tested in non-primate animals with noted success. This then led to human trials that started in April of 2021. These Phase 1 trials have also shown promise, with antibodies induced by the Army’s own vaccine have significant neutralizing effects. This not only involves the original strains of the coronavirus but the Omicron variant as well. The hope is that subsequent Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials will further demonstrate effectiveness and safety. If so, a single vaccine against all COVID types is highly likely.
“We want to wait for those clinical data to be able to kind of make the full public announcements, but so far everything has been moving along exactly as we had hoped.” – Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, Director of Infectious Disease, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research
The Army’s Approach to a Single Multi-Strain Vaccine
Without question, the innovative approaches pursued by existing vaccine companies has been remarkable. But from the start, the Walter Reed decided to take a longer-term approach. Having had experience with SARS in 2002, it was readily recognized virus mutations would occur. Thus, any lasting strategy had to assume the virus would evolve and adapt. The effort to develop a single vaccine against all COVID strains would therefore need to be multifaceted. As a result, the Army’s own vaccine contains nano-proteins that have numerous sites spikes for multiple COVID strains. This is how it can provide lasting protection against COVID infections as new mutations occur.
In thinking about the Army’s own vaccine, the best way to envision it is like a soccer ball. Assume the soccer ball has 24 different sides that give it its semi-round shape. The design for the Army’s own vaccine allows a different spike nano-protein to exist on each of these 24 sides. Thus, when administered to an individual, an immune response develops against each of these different spikes. In theory, such a single vaccine against all COVID types could cover 24 different strains. Thus far, this approach has appeared to be highly effective and offered protection against all known COVID strains to date. Notably, this is highly promising for the future and could bring an end to the pandemic for good.
“We decided to take a look at the long game rather than just only focusing on the original emergence of SARS, and instead understand that viruses mutate, there will be variants that emerge, future viruses that may emerge in terms of new species. Our platform and approach will equip people to be prepared for that.” – Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad
Questions to Be Answered
At this point in time, the possibility of a single vaccine for all COVID types looks promising. However, several questions still remain unanswered. For one, researchers are not yet clear how the Army’s own vaccine affects those who have already had COVID. Likewise, the same question needs to be answered for those who have received other types of vaccines. Additional human trials will be required in order to address these issues. Regardless, the Army’s research offers hope that a long-range solution other than herd immunity may indeed be close.