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'Now is the time to plan' | Here's how NC researchers are making vaccines for the next pandemic

Science moved quickly to meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, but researchers ask how things could be different with a vaccine ready to go before the next one.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As vaccinations rise and restrictions loosen, most people are ready to be done with this pandemic. It seems things are on the right track, but researchers in North Carolina are already busy getting ahead of the next crisis.

Just as vaccines were key in the present situation, Dr. Bart Haynes and Dr. Kevin Saunders think a special vaccine could make sure humans never again have to go through what they just experienced over the last 14 months.

"Now is the time to plan for the next coronavirus pandemic or outbreak," Haynes said.

Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Haynes, the Director of Duke University's Human Vaccine Institute, and Saunders, the Director of Research, said, after more than a decade of research into HIV, the institute put its knowledge towards defeating the coronavirus.

The doctors, along with members of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, are now working on what is called a "pan-coronavirus" vaccine, which could target a certain subset of coronaviruses that are known to have caused outbreaks before, including the present one.

"One in 2003, the SARS outbreak, and one in 2011, the MERS outbreak–both coronaviruses," Haynes said. "Certainly, we would expect that there will be others."

So far, the vaccine has proven efficacious in animal tests involving monkeys and mice, meaning the next step is to manufacture the vaccine for human trials and commence with those studies.

The vaccine triggers neutralizing antibodies through a nanoparticle.

"It was able to bind to SARS-CoV-2, but also to coronaviruses that circulate in animals... pangolin, bats, and we also looked at SARS-CoV-1," Saunders said.

By targeting many different coronaviruses at once, researchers believe the shot could pave the way for a COVID-19 booster, a separate vaccine to address variants not currently covered by existing vaccines, or a preemptive vaccine, standing by for a yet-to-be-seen virus.

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"We can have vaccines on the shelf or vaccines that can be developed extremely rapidly and deployed very rapidly," Haynes said.

Saunders says it is an exciting discovery for an equally exciting time for vaccine development, which is gaining a lot of attention and interest amid the pandemic.

"There have been some advances in technology and advances in how the clinical trials were conducted that have really changed the way the vaccine development field has moved," Saunders said.

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