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  • Pandemics have been increasing over the past 20 years.
  • The swift development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines was in part due to the structure of the virus.
  • Future viruses that could cause pandemics may be more “evasion-strong.”
  • Investing in the development of vaccines that can respond to a wide variety of virus mutations is key to preparedness, scientists argue.

Scientists from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, CA, have published a commentary arguing that governments should invest in new vaccine technology to help in the fight against future pandemics.

In the article, which appears in the journal Nature, the experts suggest that vaccines that make use of “broadly neutralizing antibodies” could target numerous strains of a virus family, such as coronaviruses or influenza.

This could offer comprehensive protection against particularly dangerous viral strains that may emerge in the future.

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The current COVID-19 pandemic is a recent example of the dangers that easily transmissible and potentially deadly viruses pose to humans.

Scientists note that pandemics have been increasing over the last 20 years. Researchers suggest this is driven in part by land-use change such as deforestation and intensive farming practices.

These can bring wild animals into closer proximity with humans and livestock, increasing the risk of zoonotic viruses crossing between species.

And until the world’s governments respond to these underlying factors, pandemics will pose a significant risk.

However, in their new commentary, Dr. Dennis R. Burton and Dr. Eric J. Topol argue that one way of dealing with this threat is investing in vaccine technologies that can respond to a wide variety of virus types.

They claim this is particularly urgent because the rapid development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines was in part possible due to the structure of the virus. Future viruses may not be so amenable to rapid vaccine development using conventional technologies.

SARS-CoV-2 has a large attachment site, through which it replicates itself within the host organism’s cells. This structural quality means it is relatively easy to develop vaccines that can stick to the virus’s attachment site, stopping it from working.

SARS-CoV-2 is in this sense “evasion-lite,” meaning it does not rely on evading a person’s antibodies to proliferate but by quickly triggering the infection in a person before they have built up an immunological response.

However, some viruses are more “evasion-strong.” Dr. Burton and Dr. Topol highlight HIV, which can stay hidden from a person’s immune system for years and generate a vast number of strains within the body.

If a respiratory virus with these properties emerges, it will take far longer to develop an effective vaccine, while the potential effects of the virus could be far worse if allowed to develop into a pandemic.

To account for this, Dr. Burton and Dr. Topol argue there should be investment in research around “broadly neutralizing antibodies.” These antibodies are able to effectively respond to a variety of strains of the same virus, not just one particular strain.

This means they could be valuable in responding to new mutations of a dominant virus — such as SARS-CoV-2 — as well as potentially offering protection against novel strains of particular virus families, such as coronaviruses.

Scientists could also potentially use broadly neutralizing antibodies as a type of drug in treating disease symptoms or reducing transmission rates, the authors say.

For Dr. Burton and Dr. Topol, health organizations could stockpile these types of vaccines in advance of the next potential pandemic, giving populations worldwide a headstart in keeping any outbreak under control.

For example, researchers could use this approach to develop an influenza vaccine that would be effective against various virus strains. Currently, new influenza vaccines are produced annually, with scientists attempting to predict which mutations are likely to be most prominent during the next flu season.

According to the authors, this is particularly important because “[i]n terms of pandemic potential, influenza virus ticks all of the boxes. It is a respiratory virus, is readily transmitted between humans, and has animal reservoirs.”

The authors recognize there are significant challenges to overcome with this new method of vaccine development.

However, they argue the financial investment necessary to get this type of vaccine ready to be trialed in humans — approximately $100–200 million per virus over a number of years — would be well worth it, particularly in light of global military spending.

In their words, “[a]s we’ve seen for influenza, one virus strain can cause more deaths than a world war and result in trillions of dollars of economic damage. Surely, global governments that together spend $2 trillion a year on defense can find a few hundred million dollars to stop the next pandemic?”

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