(WHTM) — Each year, doctors urge people to get a flu shot because the virus changes and requires a new vaccine. A similar pattern seems to be appearing for COVID every time a new variant is discovered.
However, Penn State scientists are working on a vaccine to cover all current — and future — COVID variants. It is still in the very early stages. Researchers have to do more studies before a vaccine could even start clinical trials, but if it is successful, it could have major impacts.
The COVID virus’ drive to survive — like all other viruses — has been a problem. As new, more infectious variants keep popping up, companies are pushed to make new vaccines, like the bivalent booster released in September.
“That’s how they evade immune system[s] is they constantly change,” Penn State professor of pharmacology Nikolay Dokholyan said. “Evolution allows to change amino acids on the surface of the protein…without changing its shape.”
Dokholyan and other researchers are working on a vaccine that would cover future variants, possibly eliminating the need for additional boosters. He said the new design is based on a different part of the virus than existing vaccines: “Some positions on proteins that must remain intact or unchanged,” he said.
Those parts are less likely to mutate in new variants, meaning it would be harder for the virus to avoid a vaccine aimed at those areas.
“You would have inoculation with this vaccine, and then basically you would be protected against multiple strains,” Dokholyan said.
Using that information, Dokholyan and his colleagues made proteins to prompt an immune response directed at those unchanging parts of the virus.
“We used that small tiny protein to present to our bodies,” he said.
So far, it has been tested in mice and rabbits with encouraging results. “They show great immune response,” Dokholyan said.
The next step in the research is to test this design in primates, but this technology goes far beyond COVID. Dokholyan said if this design is successful, it could be used to protect against many more diseases, maybe even cancer.
“You can imagine there are many untreatable viral diseases that exist, and this kind of approach allows you to rapidly develop the vaccine,” Dokholyan said.