July 27, 2021

Can we prevent future pandemics? Inside Fauci’s plan for 20 ‘prototype’ vaccines.

Daily Briefing

    Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is promoting an ambitious new project that aims to mitigate or prevent future pandemics by developing "prototype" vaccines for 20 families of viruses, reports Gina Kolata for the New York Times.

    Your top resources on the Covid-19 vaccines

    A program for 'prototype' vaccines

    The idea originated in 2017, when Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at NIAID, made a presentation to NIAID directors.

    Graham explained that, in recent years, several viruses—including the H1N1 swine flu in 2009, MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2016—had threatened to ignite pandemics. Each time, scientists attempted to develop a vaccine but either could not test the vaccine before the epidemic ended or were only partially successful.

    Graham suggested, however, that new tools could enable scientists to closely analyze the molecular structure of viruses and identify specific antibodies that block the viruses—even before they caused epidemics. Graham suggested using these tools to create "structure-based" designs for "prototype" vaccines that would target viruses that might eventually become major threats.

    Fauci said he was inspired by the idea when he first heard it. "It struck me and others in the executive committee as something that is really doable," he said.

    Graham published a review paper outlining the idea in Nature Immunology in 2018. However, without the urgency of a looming pandemic, Graham's proposal remained merely theoretical for the next few years, Kolata reports.

    But now—more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic—many people believe the project may finally come to fruition.

    How the project would prepare for the next pandemic

    According to Kolata, the project aims to create prototype vaccines against 20 families of viruses that could drive future pandemics.

    According to John Mascola, director of the Vaccine Research Center at NIAID, the institute already has created spreadsheets showing what is known about each virus family's structure and vulnerabilities. "For each virus family we are in a different state of knowledge and vaccine development," he said.

    If the project gets approval to move forward, researchers would study the molecular structure of each virus, discover what antibodies can neutralize the virus, and find out how to prompt the human body to make those antibodies. In addition, the program would establish agreements with pharmaceutical companies to quickly manufacture any resulting vaccines, Fauci said.

    According to Kolata, this proposed approach mirrors the process by which the Covid-19 vaccines were developed. After the SARS and MERS epidemics, scientists attempted to create vaccines against those viruses, which led them to focus on the spike protein that coronaviruses use to infect cells, Kolata reports.

    With that background knowledge, the initial design for the Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine, which targets that spike protein, was completed in just two days, according to the company's CEO Stéphane Bancel. (Moderna, for its part, has said it is working on its own "never again" plan to identify potential vaccine candidates for the top 20 pathogens that could develop into pandemics.)

    Fauci anticipates program approval, results

    Although the NIAID program has not yet received approval, Fauci said he was optimistic it would do so. "If we get the funding, which I believe we will, it likely will start in 2022." He added that he has been promoting the program "in discussions with the White House and others."

    Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said he too believed the program would be approved. "As we begin to contemplate a successful end to the Covid-19 pandemic, we must not shift back into complacency," he said.

    That said, Fauci acknowledged the program would be costly, potentially requiring several billion dollars in funding per year—funding that would come from NIAID and additional money allocated via Congress. However, he said he anticipates the program would develop potential vaccines for 10 out of the 20 virus families within the first five years of research.

    "It would require pretty large sums of money," Fauci said. "But after what we've been through, it's not out of the question." (Kolata, New York Times, 7/26)

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