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A vaccine developed at Duke could help prevent future pandemics

Kevin Saunders, Duke Human Vaccine Institute

Duke University researchers developed a vaccine tested in monkeys that could prevent future pandemics caused by coronaviruses similar to those that led to the COVID-19 pandemic and the SARS outbreak.

“Now is the time to plan for the next coronavirus outbreak,” said Dr. Barton Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. “We can control outbreaks and keep them from becoming pandemics in the future.”

The journal Nature published the Duke research results on May 10.  The work was funded in part with $15 million from the state’s 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, highlighted the research during a briefing last week.

The vaccine protected against COVID-19, Fauci noted, and produced antibodies against three COVID-19 variants, the virus that caused the SARS outbreak, and coronaviruses found in bats.

Fauci called the work “an extremely important proof of concept that we will be aggressively pursing as we get into the development of human trials.”

COVID-19 has killed nearly 3.4 million people worldwide and more than 586,000 people in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

The Duke institute has been working for years to develop an HIV vaccine. It pivoted to work on COVID-19 when the pandemic hit. The institute began working on vaccines that could be booster shots, Haynes said. Duke has responded to an NIH call for proposals to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine and plans to apply for federal money to manufacture the vaccine for phase 1 trials, he said.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Kevin Saunders, the Nature paper’s lead author and the Duke institute’s director of research, said one of highlights of the study was finding that the vaccine suppressed viral replication in the upper respiratory tract as well as in the lungs, reducing the chance that virus will spread through sneezing or coughing.

It’s difficult to suppress viral replication in the nose, he said.

The next step for the research is to modify the vaccine so it works against more viruses.

This is an exciting time to be working on vaccines, said Saunders.

The pace of vaccine development, testing and production was unprecedented, he said, and there’s increased interest in how it all works.

“The spotlight is on vaccine development right now,” he said. “People who were not necessarily focused on what we did before this pandemic are really paying attention to it. It becomes a great time to talk about science and talk about careers in science.”

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