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Caltech Researchers Preparing for the Next Coronavirus Pandemic

Published on Tuesday, December 22, 2020 | 11:14 am

As much of the world is focused on bringing an end to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, researchers at Caltech are already preparing to combat the next one, before it starts.

Working at Caltech’s Bjorkman Lab, graduate student Alex Cohen explained that colleagues and he are trying to develop a generalized vaccine that will help immunize people against multiple types of coronavirus. The virus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-Cov-2, is just one member of the viral family.

“My project is related to developing a broad coronavirus vaccine,” Cohen said. “We’re trying to work out a strategy for immunizing against not just the current SARS coronavirus that’s causing the pandemic, but also having a good immune response against other related coronaviruses, like SARS and some bat coronaviruses that have been found to be capable of infecting human cells and possibly have already entered the human population and also have some pandemic potential or will result in some type of pandemic threat in the future.”

Two SARS-like coronaviruses have caused pandemics over the past two decades, Cohen said. “Clearly, this particular class of virus has big potential to spill over [into human populations].”

And the known strains “may be the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “So we need better vaccines to provide protection against these possible future spillover events. And so we’re trying to develop a strategy that will cover more than just the current one that’s circulating, but possibly other ones.”

Animal experiments have begun, and the team has submitted a manuscript for review, according to Cohen.

As a growing number of nations have barred travel to and from Britain after the country announced Saturday that a new mutation of the novel coronavirus had been spreading through the region, Cohen said mutation is a natural process in viruses and to be expected.

“I would think it’s not going to have a huge effect on the efficacy of the vaccines,” he said.

“It has like quite a few more mutations than would be expected for this time, and so that’s why it’s a little bit remarkable,” he said.

But while anecdotal evidence has suggested the new mutation of the virus may spread more easily than the existing one, “I think there needs to be more evidence for that,” Cohen said, adding that a more easily transmissible virus does not automatically equate to a deadlier one.

“The immune system is remarkably plastic when it comes to these types of responses. So it can probably tolerate these mutations,” he said. “The chance of it arising on its own in Pasadena is probably pretty small, but it is possible that… this has been spreading in the UK since September, so it’s possible that it has already gone outside of the UK and we’re not seeing it yet.”

But on the whole, Cohen said mutations of the current virus are not what worries him.

“What I am worried about is the vaccines that were made against this virus might work really well for this virus, but they might not work super well for a future pandemic,” he said.

“Can you think of how much time we would save if we had something that was at least partially effective at the beginning of the pandemic? That could at least save the most vulnerable people. Those are the types of things that I’m thinking about,” Cohen said.

“It’s not just current viruses that we have to worry about,” he continued. “It’s not even just SARS-like coronaviruses that we have to worry about. There are other types of coronaviruses, like MERS, that are ones that infect pigs that could possibly jump into humans. 

“And then even on top of that, there’s the flu, there are the eBola-like viruses, there’s Nipah Virus. There are other viruses that can jump into humans and, given the right time and the right place and the right sequence of events, they could potentially become future pandemic threats,” Cohen said.

“If anything, this pandemic has taught us that we have to be more prepared for future ones,” he said.

More information on Caltech’s Bjorkman Lab is available online at

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