Universal vaccines could promise protection against future Covid-19 variants

Universal vaccines that could provide immunity to Covid-19, as well as other diseases such as flu and malaria, are being developed by researchers at Baseimmune, Imperial College London's biotech startup.

It is estimated that around 1.5 million people die every year around the world due to a lack of effective vaccines, with many more suffering the side-effects of avoidable diseases.

Vaccines work by training the immune system to recognise and respond to infection with a specific pathogen, such as a virus, parasite or bacterium. At the heart of every vaccine is an antigen - a small, safe molecule based on part of the pathogen, which triggers the protective immune response.

Most vaccine antigens are based on a single pathogen component, such as the spike protein in Covid-19, or the coat protein of the malaria parasite, which limits their effectiveness and ability to cope with new variants.

Baseimmune has developed a new vaccine design algorithm it says is capable of creating synthetic antigens containing all the parts of the pathogen that are most likely to evoke a strong protective immune response.

These ‘pick and mix’ antigens effectively present the immune system with a toolkit of everything it is likely to need to know about how to recognise and respond to a particular pathogen.

The antigen designs can then be fed into any vaccine technology platform, including mRNA, DNA and viral vectors, to create universal future-proof vaccines that should be effective against all current and likely variants, the researchers said.

The company recently partnered with Touchlight to develop a universal Covid-19 vaccine aimed at tackling the emergence of new variants and preventing future pandemics. In January 2020, the team fed the small amount of existing data about the SARS-CoV-2 virus into their algorithm, which correctly predicted major variants such as Alpha and Delta that would not emerge for another year.

Co-founder Phillip Kemlo, the software engineer who built the prediction algorithm, said: “The major problem with current vaccines is that they aren’t designed to account for the evolutionary arms race that occurs between pathogens and the human immune system and can’t protect against future variants or new mutations. Our prediction algorithm addresses all of these challenges, accelerating the creation of vaccines that are as good as they possibly can be and will stand up to whatever variants may come in the future.”

Scientific advisor Jake Baum, an Imperial College London professor who is collaborating with the team to create a new malaria vaccine, added: “Vaccine research is often obsessed with developing new delivery methods, with little innovation in the underlying antigens that drive immunity. Innovations in antigen selection by computation have only just started, and companies like Baseimmune are blazing the trail.”

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