In one sense, the world got lucky with the new coronavirus. By sheer chance, scientists just happened to have spent years studying coronaviruses, developing exactly the tools needed to make COVID vaccines as soon as the virus’ genetic sequence was published.
But what will happen if the next pandemic comes from a virus that causes Lassa fever, or from the Sudan strain of Ebola, or from a Nipah virus?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is promoting an ambitious and expensive plan to prepare for such nightmare scenarios. It would cost “a few billion dollars” a year, take five years for the first crop of results and engage a huge cadre of scientists, he said.
The idea is to make “prototype” vaccines to protect against viruses from about 20 families that might spark a new pandemic. Using research tools that proved successful for COVID-19, researchers would uncover the molecular structure of each virus, learn where antibodies must strike it and learn how to prod the body into making exactly those antibodies.
“If we get the funding, which I believe we will, it likely will start in 2022,” Fauci said.
Much of the financial support would come from Fauci’s institute, but a project of this scope would require additional funds allocated by Congress. This year’s budget for the infectious diseases institute is a little over $6 billion. Fauci did not specify how much additional money would be needed.
If surveillance networks detected a new virus spilling over from animals into people, scientists could stop it by immunizing people in the outbreak by manufacturing the prototype vaccine. And if the virus spread before the world realized what was happening, the prototype vaccines could be deployed more widely.
That is what happened with the shots for COVID-19. The SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) epidemics led scientists to work on a coronavirus vaccine. That led to the discovery that coronaviruses use a spike protein to infect cells, but the spike changes shape readily and needs to be held in one position to be useful as a vaccine. That could be done, researchers discovered, with tiny molecular changes in the spike protein.
Days after the new coronavirus’ sequence was published, scientists had designed vaccines to fight it.
That, Fauci said, is what pandemic preparedness can do.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.