While COVID-19 may be the most prominent example, the 21st century has seen the emergence of many infectious diseases that have significantly threatened human health, including zika, chikungunya and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). With this high incidence of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) likely to continue, adequately preparing to respond to outbreaks becomes imperative.
One of the most powerful tools in the arsenal against infectious disease is vaccination. While it may not be possible to predict the nature of future epidemics, pre-emptive vaccine research can play a significant role in improving our ability to create effective vaccines quickly. With measures such as vaccine development for high risk EIDs, universal vaccines and versatile vaccine platforms, the medical community will be better prepared to respond to future epidemics.
High-risk EID research
In many cases, such as with COVID-19, outbreaks of novel diseases are related to already-known pathogens. Additionally, previously identified infectious diseases have the potential to increase in incidence or geographic range, as has happened in the past with Ebola. With this knowledge, it becomes clear that research related to known high-risk infectious diseases is invaluable to controlling EID outbreaks. In fact, the World Health Organization has compiled a list to prioritise the research of diseases that pose the greatest health risk, as determined by epidemic potential and lack of sufficient countermeasures.1
In January of 2022, a group of professionals from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, penned an article about the urgent need for universal coronavirus vaccines.2 In it, they cited the recent emergence of multiple deadly coronaviruses, and the likelihood of future similar emergences.
Universal vaccines protect against all viruses within a given family — meaning that a universal coronavirus vaccine would not only provide immunity against all known coronaviruses, such as COVID-19 or SARS, but theoretically also coronaviruses that have not yet infected humans. While researchers have not yet achieved an effective universal vaccine of any kind, the ability to protect against illness from specific families of disease that have proven harmful to human health would be highly significant in the prevention of future outbreaks of related EIDs.
Advancing versatile vaccine technology can also speed the development of vaccines in the case of an EID outbreak. Long established forms of vaccination, such as deactivated or live attenuated viruses, are not tenable in the event of an emergent disease, in part because of how long it would take to cultivate the required quantities of the pathogen in question.
Newer types of vaccine platforms, however, enable much faster and more versatile vaccine development. Platforms, such as mRNA and viral vectors, only require the genetic code from a new disease to develop an effective vaccine, creating a faster and easier-to-produce option. And new platforms are still being pioneered — for example, researchers at Harvard have demonstrated proof-of-concept for the use of extracellular vesicles (tiny particles that transport molecules between cells in the body) as a vaccination method.3 Continuing to advance vaccine technology will serve to facilitate swifter, more effective EID response.
Looking to the future
Preemptive vaccine research is critical to preparedness against the next EID outbreak.
Disease X, the placeholder name given to the unknown virus that may pose a threat to human health, is always on the horizon. The faster and better researchers can create effective vaccines whenever and wherever new viruses emerge, the more lives will be saved.
For more about fortifying vaccine infrastructure against future epidemics, read the whitepaper.