Universal vaccines under study in Michigan

Mar 5, 2021

As the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to mutate, some vaccines could become less effective, which is leading some researchers to work on universal vaccines that could be effective across all strains.

Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, said most of the research into universal vaccines -- including hers -- focuses on flu viruses.

A transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 -- the virus that causes COVID-19 -- isolated from a patient in the U.S. The protrusions visible on the outside are the spike proteins that several vaccines target. (Credit: NIAID)
Credit National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“Coronaviruses, I would say, have been, in retrospect, relatively understudied. In general, people thought that the next pandemic was coming from influenza, not from a coronavirus,” she said.

But Gordon said there are commonalities across virus types. Developing any vaccine takes a bit of geometry to figure out which pieces of antibody need to fit together which which parts of the virus, and how to make them do that.

“You can think of it almost like puzzle pieces,” said Gordon.

The trick to developing a universal vaccine is to focus those antibody puzzle pieces on the parts of the virus that won’t change when others are reshaped due to a mutation. Otherwise, Gordon said, the antibody pieces will be targeting pieces of the virus that they no longer fit, and the virus can escape the body’s defenses.

“If we can figure out ways to get the body to produce more broadly effective antibodies, that would provide, hopefully, broader protection,” she said.