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UCLA study indicates potential for future universal vaccine against SARS-CoV-2

(Stephanie Ko/Daily Bruin contributor)

By Shivani Kapur and Natalie Tabibian

May 26, 2022 5:44 p.m.

This post was updated May 30 at 10:30 p.m.

A UCLA study suggests certain immune cells can be used to eventually create a universal vaccine effective against new variants of SARS-CoV-2.

The study, which was published Dec. 28, showed that there is a component of SARS-CoV-2 that is consistent among all variants: its viral polymerase. According to the study, by targeting that portion of the virus with T-cells, a longer lasting immunity can be achieved.

T-cells are a type of immune cell that function by killing the infected cell rather than simply blocking the virus, according to Pavlo Nesterenko, a doctoral student in immunology researching human T-cell receptors and an author of the study.

Similar to COVID-19, measles is caused by a virus with an RNA genome rather than one with a DNA genome, said Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of medicine and epidemiology. The current measles vaccine targets an unchangeable part of the virus and, as such, is both effective and long-lasting, Brewer added. Applying a similar technique to a COVID-19 vaccine could create a vaccine that protects people from all variants, he said.

Therefore, a universal vaccine must target viral polymerase, the part of the virus that replicates its genetic information and allows it to multiply, which is a highly stable and conserved element of the virus, Nesterenko said. He added that creating an immune response against COVID-19 viral polymerase is the key to the development of a universal COVID vaccine.

Dr. Marcus Horwitz, a professor of medicine and microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, said in an emailed statement that a universal vaccine is a vaccine that protects against all strains of a highly mutating pathogen, such as that of COVID-19.

Brewer said he hopes researchers will apply the same lens used for the universal measles vaccine in developing the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I don’t think that we would likely eliminate SARS COVID-19 completely like smallpox was eliminated, but we could certainly bring the levels much, much lower like we’ve done for measles or polio,” Brewer said.

Horwitz said in an emailed statement that current COVID-19 vaccines are not fully protective against new variants because they target the virus’s rapidly mutating spike proteins. While they are still the most effective protection available against COVID-19, scientists are constantly having to reengineer the current vaccines to increase resistance against new variants, Horwitz said.

Horwitz added in an emailed statement that the COVID-19 vaccines currently in circulation are centered around inducing antibodies, which are proteins released by the immune system in response to foreign substances.

[Related: Bruins evaluate COVID-19 protocols on campus amid rising cases]

Brewer said a universal COVID vaccine is achievable by targeting a part of the virus’s spike protein that doesn’t mutate as rapidly yet can still be recognized by the immune system.

The method of vaccine development in which certain immune responses are intentionally elicited to target specific parts of a virus is a positive evolution for new vaccines, Nesterenko said.

Horwitz said in an emailed statement that a universal vaccine could be used to combat future pandemics.

“Such a vaccine would be anticipated to protect against new pandemic viruses that emerge, such as a future SARS-CoV-3 or MERS-CoV-2, or a more severe version of a seasonal coronavirus,” he said in an emailed statement.

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