Duke, UNC researchers team up to work on vaccine for current, future coronaviruses

North Carolina

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – A new discovery from a team of researchers at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill might make it possible to prevent future coronavirus pandemics.

It took six months of hard work studying the antibodies in blood donated by people who had both SARS and COVID-19.

What they found, they said, changes everything.

“We were able to find multiple antibodies that were capable of preventing infections,” said Dr. Kevin Saunders, the Director of Research at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

It’s a breakthrough discovery that researchers believe changes the war against coronaviruses.

“These are the types of viruses we think can be transmitted from bats over to humans and cause novel viruses that circulate in humans,” Saunders said. “Which we usually don’t have any type of protective immunity against.”

His team at DHVI found the antibodies in their labs and worked with researchers at the Bric Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill to test the effects.

“They’re the world experts in coronaviruses. They have model systems that they can use that really test what your antibodies can do,” Saunders said.

Together, the two teams found the key to fighting different versions and variants of coronaviruses.

“The human immune system makes antibodies that are capable of being active against multiple different strains,” Saunders said.

They’re now working on creating a vaccine to mimic the immune response they witnessed in the animal models, and a way to treat the virus more effectively.

“You can give them to people as a drug and that allows a rapid response,” Saunders said.

He said this is critical work because while the COVID-19 pandemic may end soon, there could be another one around the corner.

“Seven to 10 years is about how long the cycle seems to run for coronavirus outbreaks,” Saunders explained. “That’s the time window before we’d want to make sure that we’re ready.”

Duke and UNC researchers just entered a grant program that will allow them to develop this pan-coronavirus vaccine, which will hopefully provide broad-spectrum protection.

They are also trying to get a clinical trial in the works to test the antibody capabilities in humans.

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