No rivalry here: UVA, VT scientists working on universal coronavirus vaccine to stop variants


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WRIC) — Two scientists, one from University of Virginia and another from Virginia Tech, are striving to create a vaccine capable of preventing the spread of a large range of COVID-19 strains as well as other coronaviruses.

While Pfizer has announced that their vaccine protects against the South African variant, there are still many unknowns about the effectiveness of the current vaccines against the constantly evolving virus and variants.

According to a release from UVA, the vaccines are being worked on by UVA Health’s Dr. Steven L. Zeichner and Virginia Tech’s Dr. Xiang-Jin Meng. They plan for these to provide a longer lasting solution by providing a “universal vaccine for coronaviruses.”

“I worry that we are getting into a game of whack a mole,” said Zeichner. 

In their trials, the two scientists made two different vaccines. One for COVID-19 and another for porcine epidemic diarrhea virus — a coronavirus commonly found in pigs.

The research could possibly lead to a vaccine that could help prevent COVID-19, other coronaviruses with pandemic potential, as well as ones that are responsible for some cases of the common cold.

“It would be able to protect against a very wide variety coronaviruses,” Zeichner said.

The researcher admits it’s only been tested on pigs so far but it prevented them from getting sick. During tests, the vaccine for porcine epidemic diarrhea virus has proven effective.

The vaccine was created by synthesizing DNA that causes the production of a piece of the virus. That piece of virus tells the immune system how to start a protective response.

The release explains that the DNA is then added to a plasmid — a small circle of DNA that is capable of reproducing in bacteria. Then the plasmid is added to E. Coli, where it tells the bacteria to “place pieces of proteins on their surfaces.”

A fermenter is used to produce more of the bacteria with the vaccine antigen. Zeichner explains that this method is very inexpensive and could provide a solution for the global pandemic.

“Killed whole-cell vaccines are currently in widespread use to protect against deadly diseases like cholera and pertussis. Factories in many low- to middle-income countries around the world are making hundreds of millions of doses of those vaccines per year now, for a $1 per dose or less,” Zeichner said. “It may be possible to adapt those factories to make this new vaccine. Since the technology is very similar, the cost should be similar, too.” 

The release explains that the way the vaccine could prove effective across varying coronaviruses is by targeting the part of the virus spike protein called the viral fusion peptide. The different types of SARS-CoV-2 so far have not shown any difference between their fusion peptides.

As for the currently available COVID-19 vaccines, Doctor Ken Thorpe, Professor and Chair of Public Health Policy at Emory University says all three of the current drug manufacturers continue to research the effectiveness of their vaccines against the emerging variants. 

“The research is on-going.” Thorpe says some of the variants do appear to be more contagious.

“We are really not going to beat this and get back to normal until we have 80% or so of people vaccinated and or having exposure to the virus,” Thorpe said.

Both Thorpe and Zeichner say until then it is still important to mask up and social distance. 

Zeichner said, “We may be getting tired of the virus but the virus doesn’t care.”

Zeichner also stresses with his work that he is in no way saying the current vaccines are bad and people shouldn’t get them.  As for his research, it has not been peer reviewed and is awaiting publication.  After that, the next step would be human trials.

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