FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- The Infectious Disease Research Center at Colorado State University is filled with researchers hard at work trying to better understand the virus that causes COVID-19 and potential vaccine candidates.
Dr. Gregg Dean is the head of the department of microbiology, immunology and pathology at the university.
“We had been working on a coronavirus vaccine for cats prior to the pandemic, and so, we were already thinking about coronavirus vaccines and were able to pivot pretty quickly,” Dr. Dean said.
Instead of playing catch up, these researchers are already thinking about the threat of future pandemics. Their goal? To find a pan-coronavirus vaccine.
“Ya know, pan, all," Dr. Dean said. "It’s saying can we create a vaccine that would induce an immune response that could recognize many different types of coronaviruses.”
We’ve already seen three types: SARS-CoV-1, MERS, and now, SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Marcela Henao-Tamayo, a researcher at CSU, says history has shown us there will be more.
“The reason we think coronavirus or a pan-coronavirus vaccine is so important is because we’ve seen how lethal coronaviruses can be,” Dr. Henao-Tamayo said.
It’s not an easy task. According to Dr. Henao-Tamayo, it will take a lot of funding and patience. She says the most difficult part for scientists will be predicting which coronaviruses will be next to jump from animals to humans.
“What we’re looking at with a pan-coronavirus vaccine is to really focus on regions of the virus that are less susceptible to mutation and that are similar across the many different coronaviruses that we know about,” Dr. Dean said.
It should be mentioned none of this story was filmed in the presence of the virus. That’s in a separate biohazard lab, where the research team can test existing methods for a potential pan-coronavirus vaccine.
Dr. Dean has been collaborating with scientists from other universities to develop a vaccine method using some resources that are familiar to humans, even if you don’t know them by name.
“Our research is focused on a particular vaccine platform that utilizes a probiotic called lactobacillus acidophilus, so that’s a bacterium that’s friendly. It’s in a lot of different types of food like yogurt, so we eat it all the time and it’s considered safe,” Dr. Dean explained.
Dr. Dean says the method he’s trying to develop could make the vaccine accessible to everyone, including those in developing countries. Trained medical staff wouldn’t even be needed.
“You could just say drink a pill and that would be your vaccine," Dr. Henao-Tamayo said. "That would be awesome.”
Another vaccine candidate is called Solavax. Ray Goodrich, the executive director of the Infectious Disease Research Center, has been studying the method for decades.
“You basically kill the virus," Goodrich said. "You prevent it from being able to replicate, but you leave the virus particle intact.”
That causes the body to recognize the foreign threat and create an immune response. Goodrich says there are many advantages to this vaccine method.
“They’re fairly flexible, they’re easy to scale up. You can use formulations of them that respond to different strains or different variants that come along,” Goodrich said.
The researchers say they already have the information they need to form a pan-vaccine. They’re just waiting on funding and hoping people understand why it’s essential to be thinking about the future.
“This disease, unfortunately, is going to be more like the flu than it is like polio," Goodrich said. "It’s probably not going to be a situation where you have one vaccination and you’re done.”
Another obstacle: while we work to combat coronavirus, the virus is getting better at surviving.
“They are just getting much better at infecting us, and infecting many of us at the same time,” Dr. Henao-Tamayo said.
“It’s just a matter of whether we’re ready for the next virus to emerge,” Dr. Dean said.