Aussie researchers strive for 'universal' vaccine for all COVID-19 variants

Australian medical researchers are working toward creating a booster vaccine capable of dealing with the ever-growing array of COVID-19 variants.

Australian medical researchers are working toward creating a booster vaccine capable of dealing with the ever-growing array of COVID-19 variants.

Explaining the potential breakthrough at a public seminar at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research (WIMR) on Friday, a part of the ongoing Sydney Science Festival, leading virologist Prof. Sarah Palmer said the goal was a single vaccine to target the shared features that lurk within all forms of SARS-CoV-2.

"SARS-CoV-2 makes errors when they replicate which leads to the development of new variants," Palmer said.

"This means the vaccines developed based on the 2019 virus will be increasingly less effective over time as the virus mutates and produces ever more variants."

"So, rather than constantly developing variant specific vaccines, what we need is a 'universal' one which attacks essential, unchanging parts of the virus that exist in all those variants."

The principle behind their line of attack is based on prior work the team did analyzing the virus causing another pandemic, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Before COVID-19 struck, the researchers had developed a computer algorithm that enabled them to identify essential regions of HIV proteins shared among that virus' many variants or subtypes.

"These regions are critical for the HIV virus to survive, otherwise, the proteins would fall apart," Palmer said.

Having identified the regions, a messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine will be developed which, the virologist said, could "educate and activate" a type of immune cell called "killer T cells" that the body produces.

"Killer T cells travel through our body eliminating cells that have been affected by lots of different pathogens," Palmer said.

The mRNA vaccine will "educate or train" the killer T cells to recognize HIV-infected cells and eliminate them.

The same ingenious strategy has now been used to battle the latest pandemic with the researchers using computer algorithms to sift through the SARS-CoV-2 data to locate the shared proteins within the variants.

The team has found two such areas, one being the notorious spike proteins featured in all COVID-19 illustrations, the other is called a nucleocapsid protein that allows the virus to replicate quickly.

Palmer said the WIMR researchers have been working closely with multidisciplinary teams from several Australian institutions including Monash University.

The Monash University pharmaceutical biologists were tasked with creating an mRNA vaccine capable of educating the killer T cells to target those shared regions of SARS-CoV-2 and eliminate any infected cells.

Palmer concedes there remains "a long road ahead" until the vaccine was available for the public, but early indications are most promising.

Preliminary tests have indicated the vaccine's effectiveness and it will next be experimented on mice.

"People say it takes a village, a community, to raise a child," Palmer said of the collaborative nature of their project.

"Likewise, it will take a community of researchers to achieve a future breakthrough against HIV and SARS-CoV-2."

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