Variant-proof vaccines — invest now for the next pandemic

12 Feb, 2021

COVID’s evolution signals the importance of rational vaccine design based on broadly neutralizing antibodies.

The rapid development and delivery of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines less than a year after the emergence of the disease is a huge success story. This was possible, in part, because of certain properties of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that favour vaccine design — in particular, the spike protein on the virus’s surface. This prompts the body to make protective neutralizing antibodies (proteins that bind to viruses and prevent them from infecting human cells). These are most likely to be responsible for the efficacy of current COVID-19 vaccines.

The next pathogen to emerge might be less accommodating. A vaccine could take much longer to make. Even SARS-CoV-2 could be becoming more problematic for vaccines, because of the emergence of new variants. We call for an alternative approach to pandemic preparedness.

A special class of protective antibodies called broadly neutralizing antibodies (see ‘Pan-virus vaccines’) acts against many different strains of related virus — for example, of HIV, influenza or coronavirus. Such antibodies could be used as first-line drugs to prevent or treat viruses in a given family, including new lineages or strains that have not yet emerged. More importantly, they could be used to design vaccines against many members of a given family of viruses.

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