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Local scientists hope to create the ultimate COVID vaccine

A researcher works on a vaccine against the coronavirus in 2020.THIBAULT SAVARY/AFP via Getty Images

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other local universities say they’ve developed a COVID-19 vaccine that may not only work against today’s versions of the virus, but future variants as well.

A report on the new vaccine’s results in animals was released Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Immunology. Scientists at MIT, Boston University, Tufts University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Texas collaborated on the project.

Lead author David Gifford, a professor of computer science and biological engineering at MIT, said the researchers used an artificial intelligence system to sort through a vast number of possible compounds to identify about 30 that perform well against the virus. In tests on infected mice, 100 percent of those given the vaccine survived, while 80 percent of the unvaccinated mice died.


The vaccine, produced by the Canadian pharma company Acuitas Therapeutics, has not been tested in humans yet, but that work is underway.

The new vaccine is radically different from current ones, such as Moderna’s and Pfizer’s, which train the body’s immune system to recognize and block the spike protein cells found on the exterior of the COVID virus. But the structure of these spike proteins can change as the virus evolves, causing vaccines to become less effective against new variants of the virus. The new vaccine targets a portion of the COVID virus that is much less prone to evolve. That could potentially make it effective against many different versions of the virus, eliminating the need for routine booster shots

It’s not a new idea, and researchers at other schools, such as Duke University, are working on similar “pan-variant” vaccines.

The MIT-developed vaccine doesn’t prevent COVID infections. Instead it trains the body’s immune system to rapidly attack and kill infected cells, a method that Gifford described as “hand-to-hand combat.” Gifford said that it might be possible to design a dual vaccine combining the new method with spike protein vaccines. Such a vaccine would reduce the risk of COVID infection, and also limit the severity of the illness in those who did get infected. Gifford said it could also solve the problem of “long COVID” infections that persist for months or years.


For now, the researchers are focused on testing the new vaccine in humans. Three small clinical trials have begun, and Gifford said it will probably take a couple of years before the vaccine can prove its worth for human use.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeTechLab.