Scientists Are Working On A Universal COVID Vaccine

12:15 minutes

pattern of vaccine bottles against covid-19 with injection fluid. Coronavirus vaccine on Blue background
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As the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spike around the U.S., there are scientists working not on variant-specific boosters, but on a vaccine that might cover every possible strain, past and future.

Called universal vaccines, they require a fundamentally different approach from a shot that would target Delta, Omicron, or any other variant. Instead, a universal vaccine would need to train the body to respond to something every variant has in common—or to fill in the blanks of any possible mutations. 

Vox senior science reporter Umair Irfan reports on the difficult path and ongoing work toward such a vaccine, and why the immune system’s T cells and B cells, more than neutralizing antibodies, will dictate our long-term future with the virus

Plus how an undersea eruption near Tonga was one of the most documented volcanic explosions in history, new research assesses the vast toll of global antibiotic resistance, and more stories from the week.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It’s been less than a week since the eruption of the underwater volcano, Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, and international aid is only just starting to reach the archipelago that makes up the kingdom of Tonga. The blast from the eruption had the force of an estimated 10 million tons of TNT, spit volcanic debris as high as 34 miles up, and sent tsunami waves as far away as Japan and Peru.

This eruption was also one of the most documented volcanoes in history. Numerous satellites and other sensors caught the explosion. And the data from those sensors may help us understand volcanoes like this one better than we ever have before. With me is Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox. Welcome back, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this disaster that hit an inhabited archipelago where only a few people were killed. What do we know about how Tonga is faring in the wake of this eruption?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, as you noted, there has only been three reported fatalities from this particular eruption. Tonga has a population of about 100,000 people. So given the scale of this, it’s been quite remarkable that so few people have been hurt outright. But we’ve also had a very difficult time getting in touch with Tonga because there’s an undersea communications cable that was severed during this eruption.

And so a lot of the feedback they’ve been getting from outside has been from overhead flights and things like that. And since eight flights have started getting in this week, the big concern right now is COVID because Tonga, as an island nation, has managed to largely avoid it. They’ve only had one confirmed COVID-19 case. And so they’re trying to delicately balance recovery from this disaster while also making sure that they don’t have to deal with a public health disaster at the same time.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know what the impact of all this ash is to the health and ecosystems of Tonga?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right now, it’s not clear. But certainly, there’s a tremendous amount of ash. And the worry is that this ash is slightly acidic. It has compounds like sulfur and phosphorous in it, and so that if water hits it, it starts to become something that’s far more corrosive. And the fear is it can seep into drinking water, into waterways and cause damage to local fish and livestock. And so they’re definitely worried about trying to clean up enough ash right now.

And part of the reason they weren’t able to get aid supplies for such a long time is that many of the runways available were covered in ash. And only now were they cleared enough that they could start landing aircraft.

IRA FLATOW: I mentioned that this is one of the most documented eruptions in history. How is it so documented?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, one has been just the pervasive explosion of technology. People in nearby islands were able to film this and see the ash cloud and even see the shockwave come away from this eruption. But this eruption was also not that big of a surprise, though. It started beginning in December 20, and the big eruption happened on January 14. And so people were kind of keeping their eye on this volcano for a while because they saw some rumblings of activity.

And in this area of the Pacific, there was, as you noted, this Japanese weather satellite that happened to be over the area and managed to film this from space. And so there’s been a lot of documentation on the ground from space and from sensors because this has been something that had some warning signs well in advance.

IRA FLATOW: There have been some giant volcanoes in the past like Krakatoa that have been able to alter the climate for a while. This is not quite that big, is it?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, while there was a large explosion, the ash cloud that a lot of scientists have been tracking seems to be of the magnitude that it wouldn’t affect the global climate. The ash, the sulfur dioxide in there can linger in the atmosphere. And it reflects the sun’s light back into space, and it can lower planetary temperatures. And we’ve seen that with eruptions like Krakatoa or Mount Pinatubo. But in this case, scientists expect that this will not have that scale or that magnitude of an effect on the global temperature.

IRA FLATOW: With all the data that they’re collecting, what can scientists learn that they haven’t known before about volcanoes like this?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, with a massive explosion like this, one of the key things that makes it so damaging is that there’s very little in the way of warning. And so if they can find subtle signs of a potential eruption, they can get warning signs out quickly. And some of the side effects of these volcanoes like the tsunamis that have been percolating throughout the Pacific Ocean, there was a tsunami that was blamed for an oil spill off the coast of Peru tied to this volcanic eruption.

And so with this data, they can better understand the warning signs ahead of time, but then also just get a better understanding of what’s going on deep within the Earth. Some of the mechanisms of that actually lead to eruptions are still something of a mystery. And so there’s a lot left to learn about the geology of this planet.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to our weekly COVID update. You’ve been reporting at Vox about a new frontier in the effort to contain COVID-19. And I’m referring to a universal vaccine which would potentially protect us all from all current variants and any future variants. How is that coming along, and how does that work?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, and not just variants of COVID-19. There are researchers that are working on vaccines that could potentially protect us from all coronaviruses. So they’re aiming pretty wide here with this approach. And so there was a team at the US Army that recently reported that they made some progress on developing a vaccine that can target multiple variants at the same time. But the idea of targeting a broader scope of viruses is something that scientists have been wrestling with for a long time. And it’s been difficult because it uses basically a different mechanism in our immune system than the one that we typically use with vaccines.

And so there’s two main approaches. One is where you basically put together a sampler platter of different antigens on a vaccine, so you essentially take, in the case of COVID-19, multiple spike proteins for multiple variants on a single vaccine and inject that. And the idea is that your immune system will learn to recognize those, but also fill in the blanks and potentially adapt to future variants.

And the other approach is to get the vaccine to target the parts of the virus that don’t change, that stay the same between a species of virus. And that’s been a bit challenging as well because the parts of the virus that don’t change are also sometimes the parts of the virus that don’t generate a strong immune response. And so the question is then, how do you get the immune system to recognize this and adapt and begin to counter it?

And that’s something that scientists are working on right now. But researchers, including Anthony Fauci and other researchers at the National Institutes of Health, say that this should be an urgent priority, that this is something that we really need to start investing in now because it will not only help us get out of this pandemic, but potentially prevent the next one.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s urgent to develop this wide scale vaccine as urgent as it is to try to do a more specific one.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. With the specific vaccines, those were the faster ones to get out, so it makes sense that we prioritize those. But we’re seeing right now that the early vaccines that we have, they were targeted to some of the earliest versions of the virus. And they’re losing a bit of efficacy with these new variants. And we’re seeing that somewhat with Omicron with a bit more of breakthrough infections among people who are vaccinated.

IRA FLATOW: This brings me to another issue that you’ve reported on, and I’m talking about how we’re even assessing our immunity to a virus like COVID-19. It’s not as simple as looking at our antibodies, which are a short-term thing.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, the main benchmark we’ve been using are what are called neutralizing antibodies. So these are antibodies, small proteins, that bind to the virus. And they’re said to be neutralizing if they can prevent infection in the first place. But we’re seeing that in a lot of cases, people who have been vaccinated are still getting infected, but they’re not getting severely ill.

And that’s because the other part of the immune system is starting to kick in, namely the memory part of the immune system, the memory B-cells and the memory T-cells. The B-cells in your immune system generate the antibodies to begin with. And the T-cells, while they don’t prevent infection, what they do is they look for cells that have been infected with the virus that have been hijacked to turn into virus factories, and it eliminates those.

And so what scientists are saying is that in order to assess long-term immunity over the years and to come, they need to start looking at the activity of these B-cells and T-cells to see how strong they are and how good they are at recalibrating and remounting a response. So they may not prevent an infection to begin with, but they can prevent it from being too dangerous or damaging.

IRA FLATOW: Are there other models for this, other diseases or viruses that could provide a map for some kind of ideal end result?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, there are perhaps other coronaviruses. There are a couple of coronaviruses in circulation that cause the common cold. And they’re fairly mild as illnesses because lots of people are exposed to them throughout their lives. And basically, the immune system, after recognizing them repeatedly, realizes that this is a threat that they should be ready to prepare for.

And so that might be an ideal scenario for COVID-19 that rather than being this super dangerous disease that lands people in the hospital, if it just leads to mild cold-like symptoms, that seems to be progress. And so that might be one of the pathways that COVID-19 could follow as we see more broad immunity spread throughout the population via vaccination.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and it would be great to have a vaccine that protects people from long COVID, too, right?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, I mean, one of the big things is that COVID-19 can be a chronic illness. And preventing that infection to begin with will certainly mitigate those cases. But long COVID still seems to be a little bit of a mystery. There are some evidence that there are other biomarkers that are associated with it. But yes, preventing those infections to begin with is definitely going to be a key part of that.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to a more pessimistic note, rather than what you’re talking about in optimism. There’s a new large scale survey of antibiotic resistance around the globe. And it’s finding that we have a really deadly problem of antibiotic resistance on our hands, don’t we?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, a team of researchers just published in The Lancet this week that they conducted their first global survey of antibiotic resistance, and they found that antibiotics are more dangerous, have killed more people than HIV or malaria. And so according to the model they found, looking at 471 million medical records from almost every country in the world, they said that there are at least 1.3 million deaths in 2019 that could be attributed to antibiotic resistant infections from bacteria that were previously vulnerable to antibiotics.

Antibiotics are these drugs that specifically target bacteria without harming human cells. And so they’re very powerful tools, but it seems that if we overuse them, that bacteria will evolve over time to become more resistant. And the fear is that our current use patterns of antibiotics is hurting these tools and their utility in the future.

IRA FLATOW: And so is there any way to try to slow this down until we find some sort of new method?

UMAIR IRFAN: There are a few approaches. One is simply to be smarter and more thoughtful about how we deploy these antibiotics, not deploying them as the default option whenever somebody comes in when they’re ill. Antibiotics are used a lot in livestock. And so if we can reduce the use of antibiotics there, then we can also reduce the rate of formation of these antibiotic resistant bacteria.

But some researchers are also looking at other therapies beyond antibiotics. And one of the big ones is phage therapy. There’s a group of researchers in Belgium that have used phages, which are these viruses that actually infect bacteria, to treat more than 100 patients. And so this might be a treatment option for antibiotic resistant bacteria into the future or may even become the new default.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, phage therapy is very old. It dates back to pre-World War II, so we’re going back to the future on this one.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, there’s been a little bit of a tough time for regulators to approve this. But in Belgium, they had a regulatory apparatus that allowed them to experiment with this. And they’ve been seeing some good results so far.

IRA FLATOW: And no vaccines for bacterial infections.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, I mean, there are vaccines that you can develop, and I think that should be the other part of the strategy as well. With the advent of antibiotics, people have become a little bit complacent, that we can treat these diseases, so we don’t need to vaccinate them. But really, the researchers here say that we need to redouble our efforts to vaccinate and prevent these infections to begin with.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Umair, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today as always.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, he has joined us from Washington, DC.

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