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The emerging COVID-19 threat we cannot ignore: virus mutations

As we are seeing around the world, COVID-19 infection and death rates are still rising. The new emerging danger with COVID-19 is virus mutations, especially what are called ‘variants of concern’, which pose the biggest risk to the effectiveness of vaccines, and our ongoing health security.

The world is in desperate need of a second-generation vaccine, or booster shot, that is effective against all COVID-19 variants. A universal vaccine.

An exciting development engineered in the Burnet laboratories by our Viral Entry and Vaccines Group, led by Professor Heidi Drummer and Doctor Andy Poumbourios, has the potential to create that much needed universal vaccine.

Heidi Drummer

Image: Professor Heidi Drummer

“I think most of us have seen an image of the COVID-19 virus – a ball with spikes all over it,” Heidi explained. “These spikes are called ‘Spike proteins’, and it is through the top of these Spike proteins that the virus interacts with human cells, invades, replicates and multiplies.

“COVID-19 vaccines inject non-dangerous Spike proteins into the body to induce the body to build T-cells and antibodies that will remember how to fight the COVID-19 virus if we are infected in the future. The problem is that mutations to the virus Spike protein cluster on the top of the Spike protein, where the virus interacts with human cells, and it means the antibodies may no longer recognise and fight the virus as effectively.

“Here at Burnet we have engineered a Spike protein that has a new site of vulnerability away from the top where the mutations cluster.

“When added to existing vaccines, or used as a booster, the Burnet Spike protein induces antibodies to fight the virus in more than one location. Antibodies have more of a chance at fighting the virus. They can sneak in the side door, in effect. And this means mutations, no matter what they are, are less of an inhibiting factor than they are with current vaccines.”

“The great thing is that our Burnet Spike protein technology can be easily incorporated into any existing vaccine platform, effectively giving any vaccine that ‘second area of vulnerability’ advantage. This has the potential to produce a universal vaccine effective against variants.

From here we enter the ‘proof of concept’ stage. This is the stage where Heidi, Andy and their team return to the lab and put in the hard yards.

“We need to create a significant body of data showing that the Burnet Spike protein produces a really potent neutralising antibody that is effective against virus variants, and that it works as a booster used in conjunction with other existing vaccines.

“This is a really critical stage, and it takes time and resources, but it is absolutely crucial, because with proof of concept we can license our intellectual property to vaccine manufacturers, where it enters production and gets to where it is most needed – out in the community.

“Unfortunately, the proof of concept remains unfunded.”

And this is where you come in.

Your donation today will keep Heidi, Andy and their team in the labs, working to get the unique Burnet engineered Spike protein through the ‘proof of concept’ stage, allowing it to progress to manufacture, and out into the world where it has the potential to change the face of COVID-19 second-generation vaccines.