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UNC researchers develop universal COVID vaccine with the potential to protect against variants

UNC Hospitals pictured on Monday, August 16th, 2021.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, researchers in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health have developed a new universal coronavirus vaccine, with the potential to protect against multiple coronaviruses, as well as the different variants of COVID-19.

David Martinez, a Hanna H. Gray Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and one of the lead authors of the study, explained what makes the research unique. 

“Our vaccine is really different than the original vaccines in that it aims to not only protect against COVID-19 and some of the variants of concern, but our vaccine can actually protect against the original SARS coronavirus from 2003, as well as close cousins that circulate in bats, for example,” Martinez said.

According to Martinez, this universal coronavirus vaccine functions similarly to the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. However, instead of administering the mRNA code for one spike protein, this vaccine administers the mRNA code for four different spike proteins at the same time.

“The only difference is that we've generated spikes that are really designed in a way to maximize the breadth of the immune responses,” Martinez said.

The development of this universal coronavirus vaccine began in spring 2020. Around that time, Martinez and Ralph Baric, the other lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at the Public Health School, began thinking about different ways to engineer spike vaccines to have more immune recognition. 

The vaccines were physically produced in June 2020, but they were not shipped to begin testing on animal models until November, due to pandemic delays.

Dr. Myron Cohen, the director of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, said that if a vaccine such as this were to be approved and made available to the public, it would essentially replace the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“If there was one universal coronavirus vaccine that protected against all coronaviruses that exist, or that might exist, that would become a pretty important tool,” Cohen said.

Osahon Iyamu, a senior majoring in neuroscience and chemistry, works in the Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Ecology Lab. He said universal vaccine technology could have application beyond coronaviruses.

“I think this new universal vaccine that the Public Health School has been working on has been really groundbreaking in terms of how it's able to help kind of curb the spread with other variants that exist with the same mRNA technology,” Iyamu said.

The vaccine is still in the preclinical stage and has not yet been tested on human subjects, so it will likely be a while before it is available to the public, Martinez said. In the meantime, however, Martinez explained how people can still take measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We have to remain vigilant — by no means is the pandemic over,” Martinez said. “Get fully vaccinated as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of potentially becoming ill with some of these more transmissible variants, like the delta variant.”

Iyamu said he is optimistic for this school year, but that students need to take the necessary precautions to limit the spread of the virus.

“Most of all, I want students to just enjoy the year, being on campus as much as they can, while being safe,” he said. “Just be mindful of yourself and other people around you.”

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