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Duke researcher on path to vaccine against coronaviruses

Duke University researcher Kevin Saunders with coronavirus vaccine
Kevin Saunders, Ph.D., principal investigator of the new NIH contract and director of research at the DHVI and Barton Haynes, Ph.D., director of the DHVI, pictured in the Haynes Lab at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, Jan. 31.

A new COVID-19 vaccine under development at Duke University will provide protection against an array of coronaviruses.

The Duke Human Vaccine Institute has received a federal contract to manufacture a pan-coronavirus vaccine candidate that can be tested in a phase 1 clinical trial. In the past 20 years, three different coronaviruses have caused major outbreaks, including SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

According to Duke, there are currently no approved vaccines capable of providing immunity against all coronaviruses, including those that could cause future pandemics.

“With the potential for future coronavirus outbreaks to occur and the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to present a public health challenge, we are excited to expand our translational science program to include coronavirus vaccine development and clinical trials,” said Kevin Saunders Ph.D., principal investigator of the new NIH contract and director of research at Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

Duke received an $11.2 million contract from The National Institute of Allergy, part of the National Institutes of Health, to support the program. Additional provisions in the contract can increase funding to about $21.5 million if all options are exercised.

Within months of the global COVID pandemic in 2020, the Duke Human Vaccine Institute developed the pan-coronavirus vaccine. In May 2021 and October 2022, they published results showing proof of the concept for the potential three dose vaccine. The pan-coronavirus vaccine is different from the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines.

“Our vaccine is based off of protein,” Saunders said. “Whereas their vaccine is based off of genetic information, and that genetic information when delivered inside the person, gives that person the information to make the part of the virus that you want the immune system to respond to.”

The vaccine has been tested in animals and will soon be tested in humans to determine its safety and whether it generates multiple antibodies against multiple strains, like COVID-19 and other coronavirus infections. Studies show a higher antibody response with the pan-coronavirus vaccine when tested in animals.

“When we compare our vaccine and preclinical studies, meaning in animal studies, we see that it generates neutralizing antibodies that are at a higher titer, meaning more of them that circulate in the blood compared to what you would get if you got an mRNA vaccine,” Saunders said.

The new vaccine is not available to the public yet. The first phase of clinical trials will take place early next year. Before the vaccine can become available, it would have to undergo more clinical trials and be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Pandemics disproportionally affect communities of color, and inoculation is the first step towards combating and potentially eliminating life-threatening coronavirus infections.
“We do want to make sure that we are preparing for the next pandemic, and I think this vaccine is one of the ways to do that,” Saunders said. “What we’re really hoping to protect against is a novel SARS-like virus passing over from animals to humans and then we have a repeat of what we saw with SARS COV2.”

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