Japanese scientists develop radical new vaccine that could prevent future coronavirus pandemics


Japanese scientists have developed a vaccine that successfully stopped five different types of coronaviruses, including COVID-19.

Stopping the source: The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, looked at ways to halt future pandemics by vaccinating against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-related) coronaviruses, a species of viruses consisting of many known strains.

  • Health officials have raised concerns about how viruses that emerge in animals have become more common to jump to humans, such as in the cases of bird flu, swine flu, Ebola, and MERS.

  • Wildlife exploitation, such as intense battery farming and selling meat products, are reportedly ground zero for such outbreaks.

  • "Given that prior coronavirus epidemics such as SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV have occurred due to zoonotic coronaviruses crossing the species barrier, the potential for the emergence of similar viruses in the future poses a significant threat to global public health, even in the face of effective vaccines for current viruses," said Osaka University Professor Tomohiro Kurosaki, the study's lead researcher.

  • One prevailing theory is that COVID-19 originated in bats before transmitting to another animal, which later infected humans.

  • Using its spike protein, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID, binds to the ACE2 cell surface receptor inside the human body.

  • The study identified two parts of this virus: the "core" found commonly in all coronaviruses and the "head" unique to COVID-19.

Experiment's success: Through genetic engineering, Japanese researchers were able to modify the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 to stop it from causing an infection in humans.

  • Covering the virus' head with additional sugar molecules made it impossible for it to hook onto the ACE2 protein in human cells.

  • In mice subjects, the developed vaccine significantly boosted antibodies produced against the virus' unshielded "core."

  • These antibodies successfully blocked SARS-CoV-2 as well as SARS-CoV-1, the virus that triggered the 2002 SARS outbreak. The vaccine also stopped three similar coronaviruses originating from bats and pangolins.

  • The report explained that while antibodies that recognize this viral head can block the entry of SARS-CoV-2, they offer barely any protection against other coronaviruses. However, antibodies that identify the core are able to prevent the entry of a variety of coronaviruses in humans.

  • Kurosaki explained, however, that while such a strategy of using "broadly neutralizing antibodies is possible," current vaccines are still "unlikely to provide protection against the emergence of novel SARS-related viruses."

The research team is optimistic that continuous studies can replicate the success from the experimented-on mice in humans, allowing for the development of a next-generation vaccine that could reduce the risk of future pandemics.

Featured Image via National Cancer Institute (left), Gerd Altmann (right)

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