The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new generation of vaccines could turn covid-19 from a pandemic to just a problem

A subject receives a potential coronavirus vaccine during a clinical trial by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna in July 2020. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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After nearly two years of the pandemic, the first wave of vaccines have performed magnificently but also showed their limitations. In the United States, 240 million people are fully vaccinated, and an enormous amount of suffering and death has been averted. But vaccine efficacy began to wane, the need for boosters arose, and a new coronavirus variant is upending everything all over again. Is this the new normal?

Not necessarily. On top of the extraordinary biomedical achievements of the mRNA vaccines, efforts are underway to discover and develop new vaccines and other therapies for a second and third wave of pandemic response. The covid emergency has unleashed an unprecedented surge of innovation and teamwork in research. Just as the virus has spread around the world, so have scientists become more adept at rapid response, sharing genetic sequences and clinical data at the speed of light, enabling still more discovery.

Consider the promising research underway into new vaccines.

After two years of research, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are making progress toward the development of a pan-coronavirus vaccine, one that might work against all variants, including the new omicron and those potentially emerging in the future. According to Tara Copp of Defense One, scientists at the Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch set this goal at the outset of the pandemic when they received the first whole genome sequence of the virus. Known as the Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle or SpFN vaccine, it is now completing Phase I clinical trials and will need to undergo Phases II and III. But its developers say it has demonstrated a potent immune response and holds out the promise that it can confer broader protection than the current vaccines. The vaccine uses a soccer-ball shaped nanoparticle with 24 faces that allows scientists to attach spikes of multiple coronavirus strains on different faces of the protein.

While the wealthier nations of the world have been able to afford the advanced mRNA vaccines and boosters, people in poorer countries have been forced to wait. A vaccine candidate now in clinical trials could change that. The vaccine being developed by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, under co-directors Dr. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi, relies on an older and proven recombinant protein technology, already in use for hepatitis B vaccines. This vaccine could be scalable, cheap, safe and easy to make — a substantial gain at a time when much of the global south is still badly in need of doses.

These are just two of what the World Health Organization says are 331 vaccine candidates in various stages of development. Add to that the research elsewhere, such as the potential of Pfizer’s new antiviral that can dramatically reduce viral loads in the first days after infection, and it might be that the coronavirus will go from being a pandemic to just a problem. Rest assured, the end of history is not yet upon us.