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’s 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 S. 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 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,” Dr. Fauci said, adding that he has been promoting the idea “in discussions with the White House and others.”
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, also thought it likely that the necessary funds would be allocated, calling the project “compelling.”
“As we begin to contemplate a successful end to the Covid-19 pandemic, we must not shift back into complacency,” Dr. Collins said.
Much of the financial support would come from Dr. Fauci’s institute, but a project of this scope would require additional funds that would have to be allocated by Congress. This year’s budget for the infectious diseases institute is a little over $6 billion. Dr. Fauci did not specify how much additional money would be needed.
If surveillance networks detected a new virus spilling over from animals into people, the logic goes, scientists could stop it by immunizing people in the outbreak by quickly manufacturing the prototype vaccine. And if the virus spread before the world realized what was happening, the prototype vaccines could be deployed more widely.
“The name of the game would be to try and restrict spillovers to outbreaks,” said Dr. Dennis Burton, a vaccine researcher and chairman of the department of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research Institute.
Year after year, viruses had threatened to turn into pandemics, Dr. Graham said: the H1N1 swine flu in 2009, Chikungunya in 2012, MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016. Each time scientists scrambled to try to make a vaccine. Their only success was a partial one, with an Ebola vaccine that helped control the epidemic but would not work against other Ebola strains. The other epidemics waned before the vaccines could be made or tested.
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