Robin Foster, Ernie Mundell
MONDAY, July 26, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- In an effort to avoid another pandemic in the coming years, Dr. Anthony Fauci wants to launch an ambitious plan to make prototype vaccines that could protect against pathogens from 20 families of viruses that threaten human lives.
It won't come cheap, with the cost totaling "a few billion dollars" a year, Fauci said, and the first round of results wouldn't emerge for at least five years. Also, a huge number of scientists would be needed to conduct the necessary studies.
"It would require pretty large sums of money," Fauci told The New York Times. "But after what we've been through, it's not out of the question."
Using research tools that have worked with COVID-19, scientists would study the molecular structure of each virus, searching for the spots where antibodies must strike it, and figuring out how to prompt the body to make those antibodies.
"If we get the funding, which I believe we will, it likely will start in 2022," Fauci said, adding that he has been pushing the idea "in discussions with the White House and others."
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said he thought the necessary funds would be allocated and added that the project is "compelling."
"As we begin to contemplate a successful end to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not shift back into complacency," Collins told the Times.
Much of the financial support would come from the agency that Fauci heads, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), but additional funds that would have to be allocated by Congress, the Times reported. The institute's budget is a little over $6 billion this year.
"The name of the game would be to try and restrict spillovers to outbreaks," Dr. Dennis Burton, a vaccine researcher and chairman of the department of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research Institute, told the Times.
The prototype vaccines project is the brainchild of Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the NIAID's Vaccine Research Center. He presented the idea in February of 2017 at a private meeting of institute directors, the Times reported.
Year after year, viruses had threatened to turn into pandemics, Graham noted: the H1N1 swine flu in 2009, Chikungunya in 2012, MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016. Each time, scientists scrambled to try to make a vaccine. Their only success was a partial one, with an Ebola vaccine that helped control the epidemic but would not work against other Ebola strains, he said. The other epidemics waned before vaccines could be made or tested.
But researchers now have new tools developed over the past decade that allowed scientists to view the molecular structures of viruses, isolate antibodies that block the viruses, and then find out where they bind. The result: An ability to target each emerging pathogen more precisely.
When he heard Graham's pitch in 2017, Fauci was inspired. "It struck me and others in the executive committee as something that is really doable," Fauci told the Times.
Now, the institute has created a spreadsheet for each of the 20 virus families showing what is known about each pathogen's anatomy and vulnerabilities, Dr. John Mascola, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the institute, told the Times.
"For each virus family, we are in a different state of knowledge and vaccine development," Mascola said. Vaccines for Lassa fever and Nipah virus, for example, are in early stages. Vaccines for Chikungunya and Zika are further along, the Times reported.