Home / Science / Health /  Scientists eye variant-neutral vaccines amid omicron threat
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MUMBAI : A variant-neutral vaccine that could deal with the threat of emerging mutations of coronaviruses has become the next frontier in vaccine development as scientists look at ways to deal with future threats.

Governments worldwide have raised alerts after South Africa declared a new variant of concern of SARS-CoV2, which has been named omicron by the World Health Organization. Though the severity of omicron is still unknown compared to the currently dominant delta variant, countries have started imposing travel bans on South Africa and Botswana in an attempt to curb the spread of the infection.

There are also worries about whether current vaccines will be effective against the new variant. Vaccine producers such as Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have said they have already started working on the new variant, and if need be, they can deliver the updated vaccines in 100 days. Moderna said that it has begun working on “multi-valent booster candidates in the clinic that were designed to anticipate mutations such as those that have emerged in the omicron variant".

“Moderna will rapidly advance an omicron-specific booster candidate. This candidate is part of the company’s strategy to advance variant-specific candidates for a subset of variants of significant concern," the company said in a statement on 26 November.

Even as companies jump on to update their vaccines, scientists are working on “beta coronavirus" vaccines that cover all future variants. A senior scientist with a leading organization working on this initiative said that two approaches could work. One way could be that the multi-variant vaccine can be made wherein the antigen is designed using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools. “This is possible, but we need the tools to test them such as controls in an experiment where samples or sera (blood samples) are readily available from the infected individuals or vaccinated people," the scientist said.

Earlier this month, Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) announced funding to MigVax and Vaccines and Infectious Disease Organizations of the University of Saskatchewan to provide a proof of concept for a “variant-proof" vaccines that tackles ‘beta coronaviruses’ that offers protection against new variants of concern that could be used in low and middle-income countries.

‘Beta coronaviruses", according to CEPI, are types of coronaviruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

“In countries with sufficient access to them, vaccines are now breaking the link between covid-19 infection and severe illness or death and enabling life to return to something approaching normality. But the threat of new variants emerging which can evade the protection of our current vaccines and set the global response back to square one continues to hang over us all," said Richard Hatchett, chief executive, CEPI. “That’s why developing globally accessible vaccines which are broadly protective against COVID-19 variants is imperative for global health security."

However, looking at experiences from flu vaccines, the possibility of a vaccine for all variants of coronaviruses has been elusive. “We should definitely aim to make vaccines that control the problem of variants, but based on past experiences, it still remains a challenge", said Sanjay Singh, CEO of Pune-based Gennova, which is developing India’s first mRNA vaccine. “At the moment with variants, we are looking at a moving target, and we need to be vigilant and look at preventive measures beyond vaccines", Singh explained.

However, at the root of these emerging variants, public health experts say the key remains vaccine equity. “Chasing the variants and updating the vaccines will cost a lot of resources and ultimately will be futile exercises in the long run. It is difficult to catch up with new variants developing in some parts of the world due to vaccine injustice," said Giridhara Babu, head life course epidemiology, Public Health Foundation of India.


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