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Universal vaccine may be effective against any variant of any virus

Scientists at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) has recently developed a revolutionary RNA-based strategy for a universal vaccine capable of combating any virus strain effectively and safely – even in infants and the immunocompromised. This innovative approach could transform how vaccines are developed and administered across the globe.

Traditionally, vaccines are designed to anticipate the most prevalent strains of viruses like influenza and COVID-19, which requires yearly updates and reformulations. However, this new RNA-based vaccine eliminates the need for multiple versions by targeting a common component of the viral genome across all strains.

Broadly applicable vaccine

“What I want to emphasize about this vaccine strategy is that it is broad,” said Rong Hai, a virologist at UCR. “It is broadly applicable to any number of viruses, broadly effective against any variant of a virus, and safe for a broad spectrum of people. This could be the universal vaccine that we have been looking for.”

Unlike traditional vaccines that often contain a dead or weakened virus to trigger an immune response, this novel vaccine utilizes a live, modified virus. The significant difference, however, is that it does not depend on the usual immune system response involving T-cells and “memory” B-cells. 

Silencing RNA molecules

Instead, the vaccine employs small, silencing RNA molecules, making it suitable for use in individuals with compromised or underdeveloped immune systems, such as babies or those with immunocompromising conditions.

“A host – a person, a mouse, anyone infected – will produce small interfering RNAs as an immune response to viral infection. These RNAi then knock down the virus,” said lead author Shouwei Ding, a professor of microbiology at UCR. “If we make a mutant virus that cannot produce the protein to suppress our RNAi, we can weaken the virus. It can replicate to some level, but then loses the battle to the host RNAi response. A virus weakened in this way can be used as a vaccine for boosting our RNAi immune system.”

Powerful vaccine protection 

The researchers tested this new strategy using a mouse virus called Nodamura on mutant mice lacking T and B cells. Remarkably, with just one vaccine injection, these mice were protected from a lethal dose of the virus for at least 90 days, equivalent to approximately nine human years per mouse day according to some studies.

This approach has recently received a US patent, paving the way for broader application, including in newborns, who are typically vulnerable due to the insufficient availability of suitable vaccines.

Targeting viruses with similar functions

The team is now looking to extend this strategy to develop a flu vaccine that could be administered to infants, providing them protection independent of maternal antibodies. 

“There are several well-known human pathogens; dengue, SARS, COVID. They all have similar viral functions. This should be applicable to these viruses in an easy transfer of knowledge,” Ding explained.

Moreover, the vaccine’s potential delivery via a nasal spray could address common aversions to needles, offering a more palatable alternative for many. “Respiratory infections move through the nose, so a spray might be an easier delivery system,” Hai said.

Strong defense against viral mutations 

One of the most compelling aspects of this RNAi vaccine technology is its robust defense against viral mutations. “Viruses may mutate in regions not targeted by traditional vaccines. However, we are targeting their whole genome with thousands of small RNAs. They cannot escape this,” Hai added.

Therefore, this study – published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences holds the promise of a universal vaccine strategy, a “cut and paste” solution adaptable to myriad viruses, potentially revolutionizing preventive healthcare on a global scale.

The quest for a universal vaccine 

The realization of a universal vaccine would represent a significant breakthrough in infectious disease prevention, potentially transforming our approach to handling viral outbreaks and reducing the global burden of diseases.

A universal vaccine would provide broad protection against multiple strains of a particular pathogen, such as the influenza virus or the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Here’s a closer look at what this involves for two major pathogens:


Influenza viruses are known for their rapid mutation rates, which necessitate the annual reformulation of flu vaccines. A universal flu vaccine would ideally protect against all types (or at least most types) of influenza viruses, dramatically reducing the impact of seasonal flu epidemics and the threat of potential pandemics. 

Research in this area focuses on identifying parts of the virus that are least susceptible to mutation, such as the stem of the hemagglutinin protein, which could serve as targets for a broadly protective vaccine.

Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)

With the emergence of COVID-19 and its global impact, there has been an accelerated interest in developing a universal coronavirus vaccine. 

This vaccine would aim to protect against not only the existing SARS-CoV-2 variants but also potential future coronaviruses that could cross over from animals to humans. Researchers are exploring multiple strategies, including targeting conserved regions of the virus’s spike protein that are less likely to mutate.


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