Sheba Pandemic Research Institute and partners developing pan-coronavirus vaccine

Researchers apply AI to unique database of healthcare workers’ blood samples to determine best antigen to protect against multiple pathogens and variants

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Vaccination in Rehovot, January 10, 2022 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Vaccination in Rehovot, January 10, 2022 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Sheba Pandemic Research Institute (SPRI) is partnering with the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and the pharmaceutical company Sanofi to develop a pan-coronavirus booster vaccine.

The joint project, announced Wednesday, aims to produce a vaccine that would protect against a variety of coronaviruses, including variants of SARS-CoV-2, which caused the global pandemic that began in early 2020. The research template to develop the vaccine will also be applied to other viruses, including influenza, with the goal of preventing future pandemics.

“SPRI is the perfect complement to our team at the Vaccine Research Center in our shared goal to predict and understand the future of infections,” said Prof. Daniel Douek, chief of the Human Immunology Section, Vaccine Research Center, NIH, and senior scientific adviser of the SPRI.

“Together, we will be discovering new ways to generate vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and tests for viruses that could be a game-changer for our pandemic preparedness.”

Central to the effort will be Sheba Medical Center’s extraordinary bank of blood samples. Before COVID reached Israel, Sheba began drawing and cataloging blood samples from its 10,000 staff members. As the pandemic progressed, the hospital continued to draw blood samples and compile data. The careful tracking and curating of the demographic and COVID illness and vaccination information of the sample providers is highly valuable to SPRI and its partners in global COVID research and response.

Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the SPRI and the Infection Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba Medical Center, told The Times of Israel that the vaccine would not be ready by the fall, but hopefully by mid-2024.

“The vaccine we are working on will cover all kinds of coronaviruses and all variants of COVID [including] the Delta strain going around now in India. And if some kind of new strain of that emerges, then it is important that we have something for it,” Regev-Yochay said.

An illustration showing the evolution of the main coronavirus variants that infected Israel. (CIPhotos via iStock by Getty Images)

“There are also the most common emerging variants right now, such as the XBB Omicron sub-variant. Some are calling XXB ‘SARS-CoV-3’ because it is so different from the original ancestral strain that we fear that people will not have good immunity,” she said.

The FDA announced on June 15 that COVID vaccines for the fall should be for the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant.

“But we don’t know where it will continue to, so the idea behind what we are developing is to have something that will cover all of this, plus SARS-CoV-1, MERS, and other coronaviruses that may emerge,” Regev-Yochay said.

Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Sheba Pandemic Research Institute and Infection Prevention & Control Unit at Sheba Medical Center. (Courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

The vaccine could be adjusted as new viruses and variants emerge, but it needs to be prepared properly.

“It’s complex. That’s why using the Sheba healthcare worker cohort data, which is constantly being updated, is so helpful,” Regev-Yochay said.

In addition to the blood samples given monthly by the individuals, the database contains information on exactly what each individual was exposed to and when.

“We know whether a person got two vaccines and then got infected [with COVID], and then got a third vaccine. Or whether a person got four vaccines, and was never infected, or one personal rescue vaccine, was twice infected, and so on and so on,” Regev-Yochay said.

She explained that this enables the partner researchers to create an antigenic map. Rather than looking at the genetics of the various COVID strains, the researchers are using the antigenic map to perceive how the antibodies produced neutralize and prevent infection. Once everything is mapped out, the researchers will apply artificial intelligence to the data to determine the broadest neutralizing antigen and use this for producing the next vaccine.

“The vaccine could be produced through mRNA technology, but not necessarily,” Regev-Yochay said.

Israel closely cooperated with Pfizer to get COVID vaccines into the arms of Israelis in December 2020, ahead of citizens of most other countries.

On the cooperation with Sanofi, Regev-Yochay said: “We will be happy to connect with any pharma company… We also have projects with Pfizer and Moderna. We work with whoever wants to further vaccines against different pathogens.”

Illustrative image: an Israeli woman receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Hadassah Medical Center, in Jerusalem, on January 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Regev-Yochay said it was far too early to determine how often a pan-coronavirus shot will need to be administered.

“We’re talking about a respiratory pathogen, which is not like something you get once in your lifetime, like measles. So realistically we are not talking about a single shot. It will be a vaccine that people will have to get more than once, but at this point, it is impossible to know if it will be once a year [like a flu shot], once every two years, or another frequency,” Regev-Yochay said.

“Right now the focus is on identifying the right antigen for the vaccine and seeing what kind of immunity results we get. Those results will help us know how often the vaccine will need to be given,” she said.

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