U.S. Army researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research say they have developed a COVID-19 vaccine that is effective against all variants of the virus and even other deadly SARS-like viruses.
After two years of work on the virus, Walter Reed's Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle COVID-19 vaccine completed animal trials earlier this year with positive results. Phase 1 of human trials finished this month, also with positive results, and scientists are looking forward to phase 2 and 3 trials, Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad told Defense One in an interview.
“It's very exciting to get to this point for our entire team and I think for the entire Army as well,” Modjarrad, the director of Walter Reed's infectious disease branch, said.
Walter Reed's pan-coronavirus vaccine is different from other COVID-19 vaccines in that it uses a soccer ball-shaped protein with 24 faces, which allows scientists to attach the spikes of multiple coronavirus strains on different faces of the protein.
This will potentially allow the vaccine to offer a broader range of protection against COVID-19 variants, as well as other SARS-like coronaviruses.
A Dec. 16 press release from U.S. Army officials said the SpFN vaccine "protects non-human primates from disease caused by the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 and induces highly-potent and broadly-neutralizing antibody responses against major SARS-CoV-2 variants."
Dr. Modjarrad explained that human trials have taken longer than expected because the Army lab needed to test the vaccine on subjects who had neither been vaccinated nor previously infected with COVID. The highly contagious Delta and Omicron variants of COVID, as well as increasing vaccination rates, have made it difficult to find such people.
“With Omicron, there's no way really to escape this virus. You're not going to be able to avoid it. So I think pretty soon either the whole world will be vaccinated or have been infected,” Modjarrad said.
The next step for scientists is to study how the Army's pan-coronavirus vaccine affects people who were previously vaccinated or who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection. Defense One reports that Walter Reed is "working with a yet-to-be-named industry partner for that wider rollout."
“We need to evaluate it in the real-world setting and try to understand how does the vaccine perform in much larger numbers of individuals who have already been vaccinated with something else initially … or already been sick,” Modjarrad said.
He credited nearly all of Walter Reed's 2,500 staff with having a role in the vaccine's development.
“We decided to take a look at the long game rather than just only focusing on the original emergence of SARS, and instead understand that viruses mutate, there will be variants that emerge, future viruses that may emerge in terms of new species. Our platform and approach will equip people to be prepared for that.”
These promising vaccine developments came as President Joe Biden declared Tuesday that the Omicron variant has become the dominant coronavirus variant in the United States.
However, a study released Wednesday indicated that this new wave of COVID-19 infections may be milder than previous waves.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa found that the Omicron variant, which appears to be resistant to current COVID-19 vaccines, resulted in 80% fewer hospitalizations compared to the Delta and other variant infections.