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University of Cambridge’s Prof Jonathan Heeney joins global effort to counter threat of future coronavirus pandemics and develop longer-lasting Covid-19 vaccines

A global strategy that will help protect the world from the threat of future pandemics caused by new coronaviruses and provide effective, longer lasting vaccines to variants of the Covid-19 virus has been launched.

Prof Jonathan Heeney, head of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge, is one of the advisers on the taskforce that has drawn up the Coronavirus Vaccines Research and Development Roadmap (CVR).

Professor Jonathan Heeney in his Cambridge lab. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Jonathan Heeney in his Cambridge lab. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The response of the scientific and medical communities to the development and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines has been incredible, but as new variants emerge and immunity begins to wane we need newer technologies. It’s vital that we continue to develop vaccine candidates to help keep us safe from the next virus threats,” he said.

A fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge, he is leading an ongoing clinical trial to evaluate a needle-free coronavirus vaccine that he developed at the university and spin-out company DIOSynVax.

Administered using a blast of air, the vaccine is intended to prime the immune system to provide a broader protective response to coronaviruses and is therefore a step towards developing a future-proofed coronavirus vaccine.

DIOSynVax was awarded $42million from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the UK government to support this work last year.

The new roadmap is being led by the US Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota and involves an international collaboration of 50 scientific experts from around the world, who have created a unified strategy.

Professor Jonathan Heeney and the team at DIOSynVax. Picture: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge
Professor Jonathan Heeney and the team at DIOSynVax. Picture: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge

“The Covid-19 pandemic marks the third time in just 20 years that a coronavirus has emerged to cause a public health crisis,” said Dr Michael T Osterholm, from the University of Minnesota. “The Covid-19 pandemic taught us the hard lesson that we must be better prepared. Rather than waiting for a fourth coronavirus to emerge — or for the arrival of an especially dangerous SARS-CoV-2 variant — we must act now to develop better, longer lasting and more broadly protective vaccines. If we wait for the next event to happen before we act, we will be too late.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, caused by the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in 2019, came after an epidemic in 2003 caused by a different coronavirus called SARS-CoV. About one in 10 people infected with SARS-CoV died, and bout a third of those infected with MERS-CoV, but neither virus spread easily from one person to another.

SARS-CoV-2 has a much lower fatality rate, but is so highly infectious between people that it had led to more than 650 million confirmed cases and 6.6 million deaths by the end of 2022.

There is concern that in future a new coronavirus could emerge that is both highly transmissible and highly lethal.

And new SARS-CoV-2 variants could further jeopardise the significant protection provided by current vaccines against severe disease and death.

Professor Jonathan Heeney is head of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Jonathan Heeney is head of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell

The CVR’s detailed and coordinated plan is designed to counter these threats and accelerate the development of long-lasting, broadly protective coronavirus vaccines that prevent severe disease and death, and potentially protect against infection and transmission. The roadmap emphasises such vaccines must be suitable for all regions, including remote areas and low- and middle-income countries.

Different paths are offered - such as beginning with vaccines to protect against variants of SARS-CoV-2, or focusing on vaccines capable of protecting against multiple types of coronaviruses, including those likely to spill over from animals to humans in the future.

Analysing what needs to be tackled, the roadmap covers five topic areas:

  • Virology - it says developing broadly protective coronavirus vaccines requires learning more about the global distribution of coronaviruses circulating in animal reservoirs that have the potential to spill over to humans.
  • Immunology - scientists need to learn more about human immunology, including research to expand the breadth and durability of immune protection from vaccines and natural infection, and the report notes that improved understanding of mucosal immunity may unlock new strategies to block infection.
  • Vaccinology - identifying key preferred product characteristics, can inform priorities and strategies for vaccine research, and we need to leverage new technologies and identify the best methods to assess vaccine efficacy.
  • Animal and human infection models for vaccine research - the roadmap notes the limited availability of a range of suitable animal models is a key barrier to developing broadly protective coronavirus vaccines, and more work is needed to explore the potential role for the safe and effective use of controlled human infection models in coronavirus vaccine research.
  • Policy and financing - successful development and global distribution of broadly protective coronavirus vaccines means reinvigorating and sustaining a high level of political commitment and long-term investment in vaccine R&D and manufacturing.

Dr Charlie Weller, head of prevention, infectious diseases, at the Wellcome Trust, said: “The vaccines that we currently have for Covid-19 are the most important tool that we have in our battle against the pandemic.

“But we can do better – by developing vaccines that give us broader protection – protection against new variants, protection from coronaviruses that have not yet emerged but might cause the next pandemic. We can discover new ways to deliver vaccines, such as skin patches or intranasal vaccines – and maybe even vaccines that could block transmission. This roadmap creates the structured plan that will give us the tools we need to better protect ourselves, our families and our communities around the world.”

The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund the work.

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