Green light for universal Covid vaccine project

A universal vaccine that could bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic is now in development at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

A team of scientists at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, in collaboration with the Kirby Institute and the UNSW RNA Institute, can now move forward to the next stage of developing a variant-proof COVID-19 vaccine, thanks to vital funding from the NSW Government.

The researchers are working on an mRNA vaccine that will be resistant to emerging variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, ending the need to modify booster shot formulas.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has so far killed at least 15 million people globally and caused chronic cardiovascular, lung, blood, and neurological complications in many more. It will not be over until we can prevent new variants of the virus from emerging,” says Garvan’s Professor Chris Goodnow, the Chief Investigator of this research.

“We’re addressing the urgent need for a COVID-19 vaccine that is variant-proof, preventing transmission of current and future strains,” he says.

While the current COVID-19 vaccine options are safe and effective at reducing hospitalisation and serious disease, they have not succeeded in eliminating the virus. The challenge is that as the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutates into new variants over time, it becomes effective at evading the vaccines.

SARS-CoV-2 vaccines are developed reactively rather than proactively, meaning that while they do offer protection, the virus is one step ahead, leaving communities vulnerable to waves of new strains, like the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 already circulating in Australia.

How a universal COVID-19 vaccine will prime the immune system to recognise all variants

Current COVID-19 vaccines and most vaccines in development, such as variant-specific mRNA boosters, target sites on the spike protein of the virus that change as the virus mutates.

The universal vaccine will instead target parts of the virus that are not typically subject to change. These areas are important for the virus to survive, so in targeting them, it forces the virus into a corner. This approach is designed to prime the immune system to recognise all variants of the virus, preventing infection from not just current strains of COVID-19, but future strains yet to emerge.

The team has studied related coronaviruses to target these key stable sites. Having already demonstrated the underlying approach in cell studies, the researchers will now work on the vaccine formulation in animal models, testing strength and durability of antibody responses in comparison with the current gold standard mRNA vaccine. They plan to select a lead candidate to put forward for clinical trials by December 2023.

The funding was awarded by NSW Health in the form of a COVID-19 Vaccine Acceleration Research Grant to support research conducted at Garvan, in collaboration with the Kirby Institute and the RNA Institute at UNSW.

“At Garvan, alongside our collaborators from the UNSW RNA Institute and the Kirby Institute, we are uniquely positioned with the expertise and the facilities to develop and test a safe and effective universal COVID-19 vaccine,” says Professor Peter Croucher, Garvan’s Executive Director (interim).

The team members involved in the collaboration are:

  • Professor Chris Goodnow, The Bill and Patricia Ritchie Chair and Head of the Immunogenomics Laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Director of the Cellular Genomics Futures Institute UNSW Sydney
  • Dr Deborah Burnett, Group Leader at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research
  • Professor Daniel Christ, Laboratory Head at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research
  • Professor Anthony Kelleher, Director of the Kirby Institute UNSW
  • Dr Anupriya Aggarwal, Research Officer at the Kirby Institute UNSW
  • A/Prof Stuart Turville, Laboratory Head at the Kirby Institute UNSW
  • Dr Katherine Jackson, Senior Research Officer at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research
  • Professor Palli Thordarson, Director of the UNSW RNA Institute at UNSW Sydney; Program Coordinator for the NSW RNA Production and Research Network (NSW-RPRN); Leader of the NSW RNA Bioscience Alliance and Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) President-Elect

Professor Chris Goodnow is The Bill and Patricia Ritchie Foundation Chair; NHMRC Investigator; and Professor and Director of the Cellular Genomics Futures Institute, UNSW Sydney. He is the former Executive Director of the Garvan Institute.

Dr Deborah Burnett is a Conjoint Senior Lecturer at St Vincent’s Clinical School, UNSW Medicine and Health.

Professor Daniel Christ is a Conjoint Professor at St Vincent’s Clinical School, UNSW Medicine and Health. He is the Director of the Centre for Targeted Therapy and the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Solvanix Pty Ltd.

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