In a way, the world was lucky with the new coronavirus. By sheer coincidence, scientists coincidentally spent years studying coronaviruses and developing the exact tools needed to make Covid vaccines once the virus’s genetic sequence was released.
But what if the next pandemic comes from a virus that causes Lassa fever, or from the Sudanese Ebola tribe, or from a Nipah virus?
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, promotes an ambitious and expensive plan to prepare for such nightmare scenarios. It would cost “a few billion dollars” a year, take five years to get results, and employ a huge cadre of scientists, he said.
The idea is to produce “prototype” vaccines to protect against viruses from around 20 families that could trigger a new pandemic. With research tools proven successful for Covid-19, researchers would uncover the molecular structure of each virus, learn where antibodies should hit it, and how to get the body to make those exact antibodies.
“If we get the funding, which I think we will, it will likely start in 2022,” said Dr. Fauci, adding that he had promoted the idea “in discussions with the White House and others”.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, thought it likely that the necessary funding would be made available and called the project “imperative.”
“As we begin to think about a successful end to the Covid-19 pandemic, we must not lapse into complacency again,” said Dr. Collins.
Much of the financial support would come from Dr. Fauci are coming, but a project of this size would require additional funding that would have to be provided by Congress. This year’s budget for the Institute for Infectious Diseases is just over $ 6 billion. Dr. Fauci did not specify how much additional money would be needed.
Logically, if surveillance networks discovered a new virus spilling from animals to humans, scientists could stop it by immunizing people in the outbreak by quickly making the prototype vaccine. And if the virus spreads before the world realizes what’s happening, the prototype vaccines could be used more widely.
“The name of the game would be to try to limit spillovers to breakouts,” said Dr. Dennis Burton, a vaccine researcher and chairman of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute.
The prototype vaccine project is the brainchild of Dr. Barney Graham, Associate Director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He presented the idea in February 2017 at a private meeting of the institute directors.
Year after year, viruses threatened to turn into pandemics, said Dr. Graham: H1N1 swine flu in 2009, Chikungunya in 2012, MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016. Each time scientists tried to make a vaccine. Her only success was a partial one, with an Ebola vaccine that helped control the epidemic but was not effective against other Ebola strains. The other epidemics receded before the vaccines could be made or tested.
July 24, 2021 at 11:34 a.m. ET
“We were tired,” said Dr. Graham.
But researchers over the past decade have come up with new tools that could make a big difference. They enabled scientists to see the molecular structures of viruses, isolate antibodies that block the viruses, and figure out where they bind. The result was an opportunity for “structure-based design” for new vaccines that more precisely target the pathogen.
When he won the pitch for Dr. Graham heard was Dr. Fauci thrilled. “It struck me and others on the board as something that was really feasible,” said Dr. Fauci.
Dr. Graham published a review paper in Nature Immunology in 2018 outlining the proposal. But without the urgency of an impending pandemic, his idea remained just that.
But now many believe that the time has come.
The Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases has created a table for each of the 20 virus families that shows what is known about the anatomy and susceptibility of each pathogen, said Dr. John Mascola, director of the institute’s vaccine research center.
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“We are at a different level of knowledge and vaccine development for each virus family,” said Dr. Mascola. Vaccinations against Lassa fever and the Nipah virus, for example, are in the early stages. Chikungunya and Zika vaccines are more advanced.
Work to fill the gaps in vaccine development would be done through research grants to academic researchers. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm” among academic researchers, said Dr. Barton Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. Although the proposal is not known to the public, Dr. Fauci, he discussed it in conversations with a scientific audience.
The program would also enter into collaboration agreements with pharmaceutical companies to quickly manufacture prototype vaccines, said Dr. Fauci.
That happened during the shooting because of Covid-19. The SARS and MERS epidemics prompted scientists to work on a coronavirus vaccine. This led to the discovery that coronaviruses use a spike protein to infect cells, but the spike changes shape easily and must be held in position to be useful as a vaccine. Researchers found that it can do this with tiny molecular changes in the spike protein.
Days after the sequence of the new coronavirus was released, scientists had developed vaccines to fight it.
That, said Dr. Fauci, is what pandemic preparation can do. He would like to have prototype vaccines for 10 of the 20 virus families in the first five years of his work.
“It would take quite a bit of money,” admitted Dr. Fauci a. “But after what we’ve been through, it’s not out of the question.”