People await coronavirus vaccines at a hospital in Glasgow, UK.Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

PANDEMIC AGENDA: Redesign vaccines to protect against variants of the virus, in parallel to rolling out the 1st generation

How to redesign COVID vaccines so they protect against variants


  • Researchers are still debating whether the new variants could undercut the effectiveness of these first-generation COVID-19 vaccines.
    But some vaccine developers are charging forward with plans to update their shots so that they could better target the emerging variants, such as those identified in South Africa and Brazil. These lineages carry mutations that seem to dampen the effects of antibodies crucial to fending off infection.
  • Researchers are also considering the possibility that vaccines against the coronavirus might have to be updated periodically, as they are for influenza.

Best strategy: accelerate vaccination

Will we need updated COVID-19 vaccines?

How should we decide when to update vaccines?

How will the vaccines be updated?

  • Some COVID vaccines, including the major ones made by Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, instruct cells to produce the virus’s spike protein — the immune system’s key target for coronaviruses.
  • Variants including 501Y.V2 carry spike mutations that alter regions targeted by neutralizing antibodies.

How will vaccines be trialled and approved?

How will people respond to updated vaccines if they’ve already been immunized?

What are vaccine makers doing?

  • They include Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is developing a single-shot coronavirus vaccine.
  • Some aspiring vaccine makers have had their eye on the threat that escape variants might pose from the start. A team at Gritstone Oncology decided to focus on this potential problem by designing a vaccine that targets multiple sites on several viral proteins, in contrast to first-generation shots that target only the spike protein, says Andrew Allen, president of the company in Emeryville, California.
    The hope is that the vaccine, which should soon start clinical trials, will make it difficult for the virus to evade immunity because many genetic changes would be necessary for it to do so. “You can either play whack-a-mole and chase the variants, or you can try to get ahead of them,” Allen says.



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Joaquim Cardoso @ BCG

Senior Advisor for Health Care Strategy to BCG — Boston Consulting Group