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What’s the next pandemic? Scientists are already working on a vaccine

vaccine vials and syringe

Scientists are developing vaccines to protect against the next pandemic – even though they don’t know what will cause it.

They are targeting an unknown, highly infectious virus that they have coined “Disease X”.

As the world emerges from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, AstraZeneca vaccine co-developer Dame Sarah Gilbert and her colleagues at the University of Oxford have turned their attention to creating vaccines for high-risk families of viruses.

If an unexpected virus emerges, it’s hoped these vaccines will be able to be rapidly tweaked to respond to the emerging threat.

They are working on vaccines for a long list of illnesses that have sparked outbreaks including Middle East respiratory syndrome which is caused by a deadly virus transmitted from camels to humans that is suspected to have killed up to 35 percent of infected patients.

They are also working on a vaccine for Nipah virus, a deadly bat-borne pathogen that causes fever, vomiting and respiratory infections and has recently killed two people in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

“[We’re] making sure that we’ve looked at all the different families of viruses that are likely to cause outbreaks,” Gilbert told a panel at the Doherty Institute on Wednesday. “[We’re] working on at least one example from each of those families.”

The English vaccinologist said her team had used the concept of Disease X – a placeholder term first adopted by the World Health Organisation in 2018 – when developing their COVID-19 vaccine. It was based on years of research, trials and what are known as platform technologies.

These platforms can be easily adapted to create different vaccines, speeding up the time it takes to respond to an emerging infectious disease.

“We already had a head start in thinking about what you do with Disease X,” she explained.

Professor Paul Young, a University of Queensland virologist who co-led a consortium that developed a COVID-19 vaccine candidate in 2020, said it was difficult to predict what the next pandemic might look like, but it was most likely that respiratory pathogens would be behind it.

“They are the ones that tend to spread out in a pandemic environment more than others,” he explained. “So we are focused on those.”

Professor Terry Nolan, head of the vaccine and immunisation research group at the Doherty Institute, said he was most worried about the jump of illnesses from animal to humans.

“That can’t be predicted with any certainty at all,” he said.

Nolan said an influenza pandemic was the most likely future threat.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has been linked to a rare but deadly blood clot disease that some scientists believe is caused by a rare gene and exposure to a mystery pathogen.

“We haven’t fully got to the bottom of that yet,” Gilbert said.

“It’s very difficult to investigate things that are incredibly rare.”

Nolan said communicating the benefits of vaccination to the public became difficult after the AstraZeneca vaccine blood clot syndrome emerged.

Nolan said this coincided with a period when there was a lack of virus circulating in the community due to lockdowns.

“The public got very confused,” he said. “We’ve got to find better ways of keeping that messaging simple, and understanding where we’re starting from and what we’re doing in terms of protecting the future as opposed to protecting what might happen tomorrow.”

Nolan hopes a federal inquiry into COVID-19 looks at why there had been a drop in enthusiasm to be vaccinated against COVID-19, particularly with boosters.

“We still have plenty of circulating virus, plenty of people still severely affected by the virus and the need for boosters especially in vulnerable populations, the elderly, those who have immune conditions,” he said. “There is a lot to learn.”

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