IRVINE, Calif. — A team of scientists is developing a COVID-19 vaccine that could attack different strains of the virus and fend off future coronavirus outbreaks.
“The reason why we don’t have a preemptive vaccine is because pharmaceutical companies don’t make a vaccine for a disease that does not exist, because pharmaceutical companies are here to make a profit," said Dr. Lbachir BenMohamed, a professor of immunology and the director of the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology at the University of California, Irvine.
With help from a $3.7 million grant from the federal government, his team is developing a "universal" coronavirus vaccine to prevent future pandemics.
“We may have a COVID-25 or a COVID-28 or a COVID-30. So, the question is not if, the question is when is it going to happen,” said BenMohamed.
Vaccines from companies like Moderna and Pfizer target COVID-19’s spike protein.
BenMohamed’s team is not only targeting the spike protein, but 24 other proteins expressed by the COVID-19 coronavirus, as well as coronavirus strains identified in bats and coronaviruses that cause "common colds."
"This universal vaccine, also called a pan-coronavirus vaccine, is designed to protect from COVID-19, and it’s designed to protect from the next pandemic. Also, from 'common cold' coronaviruses, because it has these common building blocks here, they are common between all of those coronaviruses," said BenMohamed.
If the spike protein mutates, then their vaccine could attack the coronavirus using other common proteins.
The team of scientists also hopes to make the vaccination process easier and more accessible.
“Developing a vaccine is one thing. Delivering a vaccine is another thing," said BenMohamed.
They're using patches to deliver the vaccine, similar to a nicotine patch, testing more than a dozen vaccine candidates in mice.
The two-dose vaccine would cost around $5 and doesn't require a cold chain. BenMohamed says the patches could be shipped worldwide, allowing people to vaccinate themselves.
“Don’t need a syringe, don’t need nothing. Put on your arm, and you’re ready to go.”
They’ve successfully induced an immune response in mice and are now testing whether it protects them from the virus.
"This is the way to go. This is going to be a game-changer of how the vaccine will be delivered in the future," said BenMohamed.
If successful, he believes other vaccines could also be delivered with patches.
If they're able to show efficacy with the vaccine in animals, it would then move into human clinical trials.
“Even if that vaccine didn't go into FDA approval, we can have it stored and have it ready. As soon as in 2025 I hear that there is a pandemic in Wuhan, or in China, or in Africa, I can ship that vaccine to that location and then get that pandemic locally stopped over there before it becomes a global pandemic," said BenMohamed.
He says getting ahead of deadly pandemics will require innovative, offensive strategies.