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La Jolla scientists are working on a vaccine against coronaviruses — all of them

A simulated view of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, shows the virus' surface spike proteins.
A simulated view of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, shows the surface spike proteins the virus uses to slip inside human cells.
(Lorenzo Casalino / Amaro Lab, UC San Diego)

Scientists at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology received $2.6 million as part of a larger effort to develop protective shots against past, present and future coronaviruses.

SARS. MERS. COVID-19. Coronaviruses caused all three diseases, and scientists are betting other members of this viral family will cause new outbreaks.

But what if a single vaccine worked against all coronaviruses — past, present and future?

Researchers from San Diego to Boston are racing to turn that possibility into a reality, and they just got some major help. The La Jolla Institute for Immunology announced Oct. 21 that Erica Ollmann Saphire, the organization’s president and chief executive, won a three-year, $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine.

“It’s a class of viruses that we know can cause global pandemics. And it’s something that we need to be prepared for,” Saphire said. “We’re trying to ward off the next pandemic.”

Saphire is part of a larger effort led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and joined by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University. Scientists in Boston are studying people who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, searching for immune responses with the potential to fight off a broad swath of coronaviruses.

For the strategy to work, researchers must identify parts of the viral surface that don’t change from one coronavirus to the next and train the immune system to go after those shared regions. Saphire’s team will handle the design of the vaccine itself. Her group has figured out how to manufacture a version of the coronavirus’ spike protein — which latches onto cells and lets the virus slip inside them — that closely mimics the shape of the spike on the actual virus.

That’s key because, for proteins, shape is everything. The millions of proteins in each of our cells fold into intricate 3D structures, a bit like works of origami. Those shapes control what each protein does, and even slight changes affect how or whether they work.

“If the protein is better structured, better folded and more stable, it will remain longer and stimulate the immune system longer,” Saphire said.

The full grant lasts five years, with additional funding to arrive in the fourth year. Saphire hopes by that time to have a clearer sense of how a pan-coronavirus vaccine should be administered. That means knowing how many doses people need, how far apart shots should be spaced and whether the vaccine should use proteins, RNA (like Pfizer’s and Moderna’s shots) or some other approach to spark immunity.

Plenty of other researchers are chasing the same goal. Just a 10-minute drive from Saphire’s lab, scientists at Scripps Research also are working toward a pan-coronavirus vaccine in partnership with the Gates Foundation. Immunologist Dennis Burton is one of them, and he’s employing the same strategy his team has used to study HIV for decades, closely examining antibody responses for clues on how to reverse-engineer a vaccine that could spark broad and long-lasting protection.

Researchers plan to use a series of shots to teach people’s immune systems to produce powerful antibody responses against the virus.

Burton thinks a vaccine that truly works against all coronaviruses will be a tall order, and Saphire agrees. But he says a vaccine against the viruses responsible for SARS and COVID-19 is more doable given that researchers have already found some antibodies in people that latch onto the viruses behind both diseases. There’s also evidence that previous exposure to the four seasonal coronaviruses that can cause the common cold helps against COVID-19, suggesting that a vaccine against those viruses and the COVID coronavirus is also possible.

“How feasible it is depends on how broad you’re trying to make your vaccine, how many viruses you’re trying to do,” Burton said. “It’s a case of seeing how far you can push the envelope.” ◆