The discovery of the COVID-19 virus in 2020 prompted a global race for an effective vaccine. Scientists have now developed several vaccines to fight COVID-19. While the vaccines authorized for use in the United States still significantly reduce rates of hospitalization and death, concerns of vaccine efficacy have grown as variants such as omicron appear to evade some vaccine protections.
At a White House press briefing on Jan. 26, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that now there is an urgent need for a universal vaccine that could protect people from multiple COVID-19 variants, as well as other coronaviruses such as SARS. And some news outlets tweeted that the Army was developing a universal coronavirus vaccine.
Is the Army working on a universal vaccine that would protect people from multiple coronaviruses?
Yes, researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are working to develop a universal vaccine that would protect people against multiple COVID-19 variants and other coronaviruses. But the vaccine likely won’t be available to the general public for several years.
WHAT WE FOUND
According to a U.S. Army press release, researchers at the The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research began work on the universal coronavirus vaccine in early 2020, when they were given the first DNA sequencing of the COVID-19 virus.
This vaccine would protect against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and may provide broad protection against variants associated with the alpha strain. It would also provide protection against other coronaviruses like SARS-origin viruses. The development of this vaccine could provide researchers with the tools they need to prevent another pandemic, the release said, by acting “as the first line of defense against variants of concern and similar viruses that could emerge in the future.”
DefenseOne reported the Army-developed vaccine uses “a soccer ball-shaped protein with 24 faces for its vaccine, which allows scientists to attach the spikes of multiple coronavirus strains on different faces of the protein.” This would allow the virus to attack multiple coronaviruses at the same time, because different strains could be built into the vaccine.
The first phase of clinical trials in humans began in April 2021. Prior to that, primates were used as test subjects. According to results of the animal testing phase, the antibody responses “exceed those observed for other major vaccines and rapidly protects against respiratory infection and disease in the upper and lower airways and lung tissue of nonhuman primates.”
The initial vaccine trials did not include the omicron variant, because the omicron variant did not exist at the time. The delta variant was included in initial testing.
Even though the Army is working on developing a universal coronavirus vaccine, that doesn’t mean it will be available to the general public any time soon, if at all. For now, it’s still in the development and research phase in the U.S.
Dr. David Morens, senior advisor to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told VERIFY to make a universal vaccine is a challenge because if you try to broaden the recipe to add different viruses or variants, like the Army is working to do, “your chance of success diminishes."
“To make a mostly-universal or fully-universal vaccine is at the moment beyond our technical capacities for any virus group I know of, but that doesn’t mean that basic science research won’t in the future give us clues to go further,” Morens said.
“It’s not only a question of mutations and bat emergences, it’s the whole question of breadth of coverage. How do you get a vaccine to do a hundred different jobs when it is barely possible to get it to do one? How do you get the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to play all 22+ positions on the team at the same level?” Morens added.
During a White House press briefing, Fauci also said it could be years before the vaccine would be available in the U.S.
“I don’t want anyone to think that pan-coronavirus vaccines are literally around the corner in a month or two. It’s going to take years to develop in an incremental fashion. Some of these are already in phase one clinical trials. Don’t forget, however, that our current vaccine regimens do provide strong protection, particularly when used with a booster, against severe coronavirus disease and death,” Fauci said. “So, do not wait to receive your primary vaccine regimen. And if you are vaccine [vaccinated], please get your booster if you are eligible.”
The Army’s universal coronavirus vaccine effort is not the only universal vaccine in development. Scientists are also working on a universal flu vaccine, which, according to the National Academy of Sciences, could be available within the next ten years.
More from VERIFY: Yes, Spikevax and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are the same