University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers are leading efforts along with three other teams to create a universal coronavirus vaccine

The National Institute of Health (NIH) announced last fall that the Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine consortium, led by UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine Professor of Pathobiological Sciences Yoshihiro Kawaoka, would work to develop a vaccine to fight multiple coronaviruses. The Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine consortium has received approximately $7 million in funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

“UW-Madison has long been at the leading edge of biomedical research,” said Director of Research Communications Kelly Tyrrell in an interview with The Daily Cardinal. “The Kawaoka lab pioneered a reverse genetics technique that permits influenza vaccine developers to more effectively design new vaccines each year. The lab has also been working to develop a universal influenza vaccine. These efforts prepared the lab for work on a universal coronavirus vaccine.” 

After the first strain of SARS-CoV-2, multiple variants have appeared with new consequential characteristics. These variants drive researchers to develop new ways to prevent SARS-CoV-2. The urgency of the pandemic prompt enhanced collaboration unlike any previous vaccine research at UW-Madison. 

“The Kawaoka lab has been studying infectious diseases for decades and has worked on technology to improve vaccine technologies, particularly to prevent pandemics,” said Tyrrell. “Research from the lab is contributing to the development of a universal influenza vaccine. With the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the lab began working to better understand the virus, develop an effective animal model now in use around the world, and undertake work to prevent future pandemics.”

The animal model poses strong promise and potential for future research development, according to Tyrrell. 

“Animal models allow researchers to gain a fundamental understanding of how a particular treatment or vaccine works biologically, how well a vaccine can stimulate the immune system to mount a response and how safe it might be if applied in human clinical trials,” Tyrrell said. “Vaccine trials with mice and other animals are the first step in a process that ends with testing in human clinical trials and help ensure human lives are not put at undue risk.” 

NIH announced additional funding that will be granted to new institutions in 2022. The earliest a universal coronavirus vaccine could reach clinical trials is five years. 

“If the research is successful, it could be applied to prevent or limit the impact of another variant that could prolong the current pandemic or another coronavirus that could become pandemic,” Tyrrell added. “The ideal end goal is a safe and effective vaccine that works across the coronavirus family to prevent severe illness and death.”

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