New roadmap charts a course towards improved coronavirus vaccines that could head off future threats

An international collaboration of scientists has mapped out a strategy to make long-lasting and broadly protective coronavirus vaccines a reality.

Person holding syringe and vaccine bottle. Credit: Photo by cottonbro studio


Scientists have published a coordinated plan for the development of new coronavirus vaccines that should provide effective and long-lasting protection against future variants and viruses.

The Coronavirus Vaccines Research and Development Roadmap (CVR) builds on scientific advances and partnerships that produced the first COVID-19 vaccines, and aims to jumpstart the search for better vaccines – including ones that could head-off a future coronavirus pandemic.

“Time and time again, we have seen that investment in science brings solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic galvanised the research community and advanced vaccine R&D efficiently and through broad collaboration.”

COVID-19 is the third new coronavirus to trigger a human epidemic in just 20 years, following SARS and MERS. Although vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 have dramatically cut rates of severe injury and death, these aren't enough to prevent people from getting infected, meaning the virus continues to circulate and evolve. They also won't protect against new human coronaviruses that will almost certainly emerge in the future.

Recognising this, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota pulled together an international collaboration of 50 scientists who began mapping out a strategy to make new coronavirus vaccines a reality.

"If we wait for the next event to happen before we act, it will be too late," said CIDRAP's director, Prof Michael Osterholm.

The CVR is the product of these efforts. The 92-page report identifies key barriers and knowledge gaps that must be overcome, as well as setting out specific steps for advancing broadly protective coronavirus vaccines.

One issue identified by the CVR is the need to improve scientific understanding of the global distribution of coronaviruses, and characterise the full range of reservoirs in wild and captive animals. Doing so will help scientists to identify which viruses to include in broadly protective vaccines – yet the task is enormous, and will require long-term commitment and international collaboration, said task force member Prof Linfa Wang, a zoonotic disease scientist at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore: "The coronavirus diversity in bats is so great that we even don''t know how much we really know about them," he said.

Also necessary will be to better characterise the body's immune responses to infection and vaccination, and to identify those factors that promote durable and broad protection against infection.

Suitable animal models are also needed for the development and testing of new vaccines, while further work is needed to identify the best strategies for conducting randomised controlled trials that compare new vaccine candidates to existing vaccines – particularly among people with pre-existing exposure and immunity.

However, the challenges aren't only scientific. "Broadly protective coronavirus vaccine candidates face high development costs, manufacturing complexities, and, once approved, uncertain demand and return on investment," the report said.

"Successful development and widespread availability of [these] vaccines will require reinvigorating and sustaining a high level of political commitment and investment in vaccine R&D, surveillance, and global manufacturing and distribution."

Dr Bruce Gellin, a CVR steering group member and chief of public health strategy at The Rockefeller Foundation, which helped fund the roadmap, emphasised the urgency of the situation, saying that the push for broadly protective vaccines should equal that of Operation Warp Speed – the public-private partnership that accelerated the development, production, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in the US.

Yet, Gellin was optimistic about the chances of success. "Time and time again, we have seen that investment in science brings solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic galvanised the research community and advanced vaccine R&D efficiently and through broad collaborations," he said.

"The CVR charts a path to aggressively get ahead of new and emerging threats by prioritising the development of vaccines that provide long-lasting immunity against a broad range of coronaviruses and are equitably available to all."