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Army’s vaccine may beat COVID-19 mutations

By Michael Wilner and Tara Copp
McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS

WASHINGTON - Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Research Institute have promising new data indicating their vaccine will work against significant mutations of COVID-19, as well as entirely different coronaviruses, an achievement that other vaccines so far have not accomplished.

The data has yet to be peer reviewed. But the Army lab is hopeful that a pan-coronavirus vaccine is achievable after testing the drug on SARS, a coronavirus that emerged in 2003 with significant biological differences from the current pandemic disease known as SARS-CoV-2.

Tests of the vaccine against both SARS as well as emerging variants of COVID-19 have shown “very good responses,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of Walter Reed’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch.

Modjarrad, in an interview with McClatchy, said the potential for a vaccine that is built to withstand mutations to the coronavirus - and prevent future outbreaks of coronavirus diseases - could be of interest to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The initial results of the vaccine’s ability to counter both COVID-19 and SARS “gives us very good confidence that we can start making strides towards the other coronaviruses,” Modjarrad said.

“It’s the first step to having a universal vaccine,” he said.

Current mutations of the virus, including variants first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, have led to another round of lockdowns because the new mutations are more transmissible. The U.K. variant has been discovered in the United States, leading to fears it will further increase the deadly surge of U.S. cases.

Modjarrad said that mutations to the coronavirus may ultimately result in a form of the disease that could circumvent the immunity of individuals who have taken the available vaccines, or have already been infected and recovered.

“The more a virus circulates in a population, the more opportunities it has to mutate and the more opportunities it has to run into the individuals who are already immune,” Modjarrad said. “And in those situations, the virus may evolve in a way to try and escape the immunity.”

In order to prevent existing vaccines from losing their effectiveness, Modjarrad said it was key to vaccinate as many people as possible while the current dominant strain is still vulnerable to the existing vaccine.

He also said programs will need to conduct surveillance of the populations they vaccinate to see if they still get infected later, which would warn the medical community of a vaccine-tolerant mutation. Researchers would need to quickly isolate the genetic sequencing of that mutation and where it was located to be able to stop the spread, he said.

Two vaccines for COVID-19, produced by Pfizer and Moderna, were released last month, and both use the same biological technology that targets the spike protein of the coronavirus that enables it to latch onto human cells.

The Walter Reed vaccine - named SpFN - differs from other vaccines in that it uses a soccer ball-shaped protein, allowing scientists to harness the spikes of multiple coronavirus strains on 24 different faces of the protein.

An independent expert said the development was promising, but cautioned against drawing conclusions on the research before the vaccine is tested in human trials.

The Walter Reed team has concluded its studies in monkeys and plans to enroll individuals in its first human trial by the spring after the vaccine passes Walter Reed’s quality control checks.

“If they have a vaccine candidate in their laboratory that seems to be effective against multiple coronaviruses, that is something we’ve not seen before – so that’s very interesting,” said Dr. Eric Toner, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Things often look great in the labs that don’t pan out in trials. But I think it’s encouraging.”