Fauci Wants to Make Vaccines for the Next Pandemic Before It Hits
In a way, the world has been lucky with the novel coronavirus. By sheer coincidence, scientists have just spent years studying coronaviruses, developing exactly the tools needed to make Covid vaccines as soon as the virus’s genetic sequence was released.
But what if the next pandemic is from a virus that causes Lassa fever, or the Sudanese strain of Ebola, or a Nipah virus?
Dr Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is promoting an ambitious and expensive plan to prepare for such nightmarish scenarios. It would cost “a few billion dollars” a year, take five years for the first crop of results, and engage a large group of scientists, he said.
The idea is to manufacture “prototype” vaccines to protect against viruses from around twenty families that could trigger a new pandemic. Using research tools that have been proven to work for Covid-19, researchers would uncover the molecular structure of each virus, learn where the antibodies should strike it, and how to trick the body into making exactly those antibodies.
“If we get the funding, which I think we will, it will probably start in 2022,” Dr Fauci said, adding that he had promoted the idea “in discussions with the White House and others. “.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, also said it was likely that the necessary funds would be allocated, calling the project “convincing.”
“As we begin to envision a successful end to the Covid-19 pandemic, we must not go back to complacency,” Dr Collins said.
Much of the financial support would come from Dr Fauci’s institute, but a project of this magnitude would require additional funds that would have to be allocated by Congress. This year’s budget for the Institute of Infectious Diseases is just over $ 6 billion. Dr Fauci did not specify how much more money would be needed.
If surveillance networks detected a new virus spreading from animals to humans, logic dictates that scientists could stop it by immunizing people during the outbreak by quickly making the prototype vaccine. And if the virus spreads before the world realizes what is happening, the vaccine prototypes could be deployed more widely.
“The name of the game would be to try to limit spillovers to epidemics,” said Dr. Dennis Burton, vaccine researcher and chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute.
The vaccine prototype project is the brainchild of Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He presented the idea in February 2017 at a private meeting of institute directors.
Year after year, the viruses had threatened to turn into a pandemic, Dr Graham said: H1N1 swine flu in 2009, Chikungunya in 2012, MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016. Each time, scientists turned rush to try to make a vaccine. . Their only success was partial, with an Ebola vaccine that helped control the outbreak but would not work against other strains of Ebola. The other epidemics subsided before vaccines could be made or tested.
“We were tired,” Dr Graham said.
But researchers have developed new tools over the past decade that could make a big difference. They have allowed scientists to visualize the molecular structures of viruses, isolate the antibodies that block viruses, and find out where they bind. The result was an ability to make a “structure-based design” for new vaccines that specifically target the pathogen.
When he heard Dr Graham’s speech in 2017, Dr Fauci was inspired. “It struck me and other members of the executive committee as something really doable,” said Dr Fauci.
Dr Graham published a review article describing the proposal in Nature Immunology in 2018. But without the urgency of a looming pandemic, his idea has remained the same.
Now, however, many believe the time is right.
The Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has created a spreadsheet for each of the 20 families of viruses showing what is known about the anatomy and vulnerabilities of each pathogen, said Dr John Mascola, director of the Institute’s Vaccine Research Center.
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“For each family of viruses, we are in a different state of vaccine knowledge and development,” said Dr Mascola. Vaccines against Lassa fever and Nipah virus, for example, are in their infancy. The vaccines against Chikungunya and Zika are more advanced.
Work to fill gaps in vaccine development would be done with research grants to university scientists. “There is a lot of enthusiasm” among university researchers, said Dr Barton Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. Although the proposal is not well known to the general public, Dr Fauci said he discussed it in discussions with a scientific audience.
The program would also establish collaborative agreements with pharmaceutical companies to rapidly produce vaccine prototypes, Dr Fauci said.
This is what happened with the shots for Covid-19. The SARS and MERS epidemics led scientists to work on a vaccine against the coronavirus. This led to the discovery that coronaviruses use a spike protein to infect cells, but the spike easily changes shape and must be held in one position to be useful as a vaccine. It could be done, the researchers found, with tiny molecular changes in the spike protein.
A few days after the publication of the sequence of the new coronavirus, scientists had designed vaccines to fight it.
This is, Dr Fauci said, what pandemic preparedness can do. He would like to have prototype vaccines for 10 of the 20 virus families in the first five years of work.
“It would require quite large sums of money,” admitted Dr Fauci. “But after what we’ve been through, it’s not out of the question.”
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