Army's COVID-19 vaccine candidate also targets strains of the common cold
By TARA COPP AND MICHAEL WILNER | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: September 15, 2020
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WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are advancing a vaccine that may be able to prevent strains of the common cold in the future.
But their immediate concern is the imminent flu season because nearly seven months since receiving their first samples of the novel coronavirus from a Washington state patient, they still don’t know whether catching the flu could increase the chances of getting COVID-19.
“When this virus emerged, it was sort of coming toward the tail end of the flu season. And now we have both, at the same time, and we don’t know what that’s going to look like,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of emerging infectious diseases at Walter Reed in Maryland. “If you get sick with flu, is that going to make you more susceptible of getting COVID or risk of it, or vice versa? We don’t know that.”
The vaccine that Modjarrad and his team are working on would target not just COVID-19, but also other coronavirus-related illnesses, including several variants of the common cold.
“Most children, by age 2 or 3, have been infected with one of these common cold coronaviruses,” Modjarrad said. “I don’t think people are really focused on trying to prevent the common cold, but that is, I think, an important side benefit of what we are trying to do,” he told McClatchy in an interview.
While the Walter Reed vaccine candidate is currently focused on COVID-19, the lab has structured the vaccine to be able to target different types of coronavirus. Once they have “proof of concept” that the vaccine is safe and effective, Modjarrad said, the Army lab will decide whether to pivot their efforts to creating the “pan-coronavirus” vaccine that would help prevent the common cold and other potential novel coronaviruses.
Modjarrad said that they are currently testing their vaccine in monkeys, and depending on the results, will enter into human trials toward the end of the year.
From preliminary research in mice, the vaccine has generated “extremely high levels of antibodies” that neutralize the coronavirus, and has also demonstrated a strong safety profile, he said.
Walter Reed’s researchers have also found that there is very little mutation occurring in the virus. That means just one vaccine could work for the entire global population — whether the COVID-19 variant originated in China or whether it was the one that came into the United States from Europe, which is the most common type now, said Dr. Morgane Rolland, chief of viral genetics for the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, which is supporting Walter Reed’s research.
“There’s really one strain, and that’s enough to make a vaccine,” Rolland said. “In terms of vaccine purposes, the virus is not a moving target.”
Rolland’s team just finished looking at the genetic sequences of 27,000 people who have had COVID-19. Viruses will mutate when spreading from one human to another, or an animal to human, because of the chance that not all of the tens of thousands of genomes will replicate exactly when they enter a new host, Rolland said.
What Rolland’s team found is that there were very few mutations. They think that is because COVID-19 spread so rapidly that the virus didn’t have a chance to mutate.
“At this point the vaccine would cover all the diversities that we are seeing in sequences that are spreading around the world,” Rolland said.
Modjarrad said that individuals should not be concerned with receiving a flu vaccine in close proximity to an eventual vaccine for COVID-19, and encouraged all Americans to get vaccinated for the flu early in the season.
“I think it’s important that we have people understand that we have some of these effective tools in place that could actually indirectly bring down the burden of disease and death for COVID-19 by doing our due diligence in taking care of the flu as well,” Modjarrad said.
A flu shot does not make the individual more susceptible to getting ill, and it will not interfere with a potential COVID-19 vaccine, as neither contain live virus, Modjarrad said.
A nose spray that is taken instead of a shot does use live flu virus. He recommends that any live-virus vaccines be spaced out and not administered at the same time as another live-virus vaccine, such as for measles.
At the outset of flu season, public health experts have grown increasingly concerned that the annual pressures on hospitals and health care workers will be exacerbated by the pandemic coronavirus, which spreads more easily without heat and humidity and has already led to nearly 200,000 deaths in the United States.
The flu kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, and hospitalizes hundreds of thousands, raising concerns about straining the availability of hospital beds and personal protective equipment for frontline workers that may be needed in the event of a coronavirus surge.