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A universal vaccine to end COVID pandemics? It's in the Army's sights

The US Army's "pan-coronavirus" vaccine could protect against any COVID variant. Learn how it works and when it might be ready.

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The Army's universal vaccine has shown good results in mice, hamsters and primates.
Sgt. Tanis Kilgore/US Army
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Omicron, the latest variant of COVID-19, has led to a surge in cases and hospitalizations, raising talk of fourth booster shots and variant-specific vaccines. But what if there were a universal coronavirus vaccine that protected against omicron and all new COVID-19 variants?

At Wednesday's press briefing, White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci explained the term "pan-coronavirus vaccine." 

Said Fauci: "There have been five SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern: alpha, beta, gamma, delta and now the current omicron. And so obviously, innovative approaches are needed to induce broad and durable protection against coronaviruses that are known and some that are even at this point unknown. Hence, the terminology 'pan-coronavirus vaccine.'"

In a surprise twist, it's not Moderna, Pfizer or any pharmaceutical company that is leading the research into pan-coronavirus vaccines -- it's the US Army.

The Army recently announced that its pan-coronavirus vaccine, the spike ferritin nanoparticle COVID-19 vaccine (aka SpFN) had completed Phase 1 of human trials. Publication of the results is expected in January, depending on the completion of the official data analysis. 

Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of infectious diseases at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) and co-inventor of SpFN, told Defense One, "We're testing our vaccine against all the different variants, including omicron," the strain causing breakthrough infections even in people who have received booster shots. 

We'll share what we know about pan-coronavirus vaccines and the Army's COVID-19 vaccine, including how it works and when it could become available.

For more, learn about free at-home COVID tests, why you shouldn't "just get COVID over with,"  mixing and matching booster shots, and the difference between N95, KN95, and KF94 masks

Why do we need a pan-coronavirus vaccine?

Fauci has touted the importance of a universal vaccine to protect against all COVID variants. At a White House press briefing Wednesday, he stressed the "urgent need" for a universal coronavirus vaccine.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases committed big to that goal in fall 2021, awarding $36.3 million to three academic organizations -- Duke University, University of Wisconsin, and Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital -- to develop and research pan-coronavirus vaccines. CalTech also has announced good early results for its universal "mosaic nanoparticle" vaccine.

In a Jan. 11 advisory statement on the omicron variant, the World Health Organization declared that, "a vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable" and stressed the urgent need for a vaccine that offers long-lasting protection without boosters.

What is the US Army COVID vaccine?

The three COVID-19 vaccines authorized right now for use in the US take two approaches to preventing infection: The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA to build up immunity, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a harmless rhinovirus to train the body's immune system to respond to COVID.

The Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle COVID-19 vaccine, or SpFN, takes a third approach, using a harmless portion of the COVID-19 virus to spur the body's defenses against COVID.

SpFN also has less restrictive storage and handling requirements than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, allowing it to be used in a wider variety of situations. It can be stored between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit for up to six months and at room temperature for up to one month, according to military scientists. Pfizer's vaccine requires an ultracold freezer (between minus 112 and minus 76 degrees F) for shipment and storage and is only stable for 31 days when stored in a refrigerator.

The Army's vaccine has been tested with two shots, 28 days apart, and also with a third shot after six months.

How does the Army vaccine work against COVID-19 and other coronaviruses?

The vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson all target the specific virus -- SARS-CoV-2 -- that causes COVID-19. But Army scientists designed their vaccine to protect against future strains of COVID as well as other coronaviruses.

The Army's SpFN vaccine is shaped like a soccer ball with 24 faces. Scientists can attach the spikes of multiple coronavirus strains to each of the different faces, allowing them to customize the vaccine for any new COVID variants that arise.

"The accelerating emergence of human coronaviruses throughout the past two decades and the rise of SARS-CoV-2 variants, including most recently omicron, underscore the continued need for next-generation preemptive vaccines that confer broad protection against coronavirus diseases," Modjarrad said in a December statement. "Our strategy has been to develop a 'pan-coronavirus' vaccine technology that could potentially offer safe, effective and durable protection against multiple coronavirus strains and species."

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When will the Army's COVID vaccine be available?

No date has been set. SpFN successfully completed animal testing and wrapped Phase 1 of human trials in December, but it must still complete Phases 2 and 3 of human testing, when its safety and efficacy is compared to current vaccine options. 

Normally, completing all three phases can take up to five years, but the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic is speeding up the process. The Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, for example, were tested, reviewed and authorized by the Food and Drug Administration over the course of one year. 

What happens next with the Army SpFN vaccine?

According to a WRAIR spokesperson, "researchers have devoted their full attention to analyzing the Phase 1 data and writing a report of the results." The report could come in the next few weeks or even months.

After data from the Phase 1 human trials is published, Phase 2 and 3 trials will begin. There is very little information so far on when or how those trials will proceed or if the phases will overlap.

To follow the progress of the Army vaccine trials, visit the SpFN COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker provided by the US Army Medical Research and Development Command.

For more on COVID-19, here's what we know about how the CDC defines being fully vaccinated, how to store your vaccine card on your phone, and what we still don't know about the virus after two years.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.