Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Research Institute (WRAIR) received the DNA sequence of COVID-19 in early 2020 along with the rest of the world. But instead of focusing on a vaccine that only targets that strain of the virus, they decided to work on a vaccine that would be effective against all of its variants. The vaccine is part of the institute’s “pan-SARs” strategy to produce vaccines for this and future pandemics.
Called Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle (SpFN), the vaccine was successfully tested in animals earlier this year, and the results of the phase 1 trial have been positive. Kayvon Modjarrad, WRAIR Communicable Diseases Branch Manager shared with Defense One, an international website on defense policy, business and technology. After Defense One Posting the information, WRAIR issued a press release noting that the vaccine has not yet been tested against the omicron variant. Usually, phase 1 trials only check that the vaccine is safe and produces antibodies.
The SpFN vaccine, named for a protein called ferritin, will need to go through phase 2 and phase 3 trials, where researchers can determine how well it works and how it works in people who already vaccinated and previously ill. WRAIR is working with an unnamed industry partner to produce the vaccine for further trials and make it available to the public if it proves effective and is approved by regulatory agencies.
Searching for a panacea
A universal, capable vaccine against any disease is the “holy grail” for vaccine scientists. Researchers have been hoping for a vaccine that could fight the common flu for decades.
Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said researchers pursuing a universal COVID-19 vaccine often have two options. One is that they were able to reverse engineer antibodies to be effective in nature, developed in less than 0.1% of the already infected population. Second, they were able to create synthetic antibodies after discovering and decoding the 30,000 genetic bases in the virus and predicting how it might mutate.
The WRAIR researchers seem to have chosen a synthetic method early on to locate these antibodies.
Duane Wesemann, an immunologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, says the difficulty the scientist is having is trying to induce these antibodies in other people.
“Let’s say we find out that we can make that happen in humans, but the challenge is how do you get enough of that specific antibody to make it work and then how to make it last”, Wesemann said.
Refer to Qz