UNC Scientist at Heart of Gain of Function Research with Wuhan Lab Develops ‘Universal mRNA Vaccine’ to Replace Pfizer/Moderna

Dr. Ralph Baric, UNC School of Public Health

CHAPEL HILL – One of the most overlooked figures in the gain of function research that many believe may be the source of SARS-CoV2 and the resulting Wuhan Virus pandemic is Dr. Ralph Baric, a scientist at UNC Chapel Hill whose research and collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology spells out how to modify SARS with a spike protein so as to better infect human cells.

From MIT Technology Review:

“In 2013, the American virologist Ralph Baric approached Zhengli Shi at a meeting. Baric was a top expert in coronaviruses, with hundreds of papers to his credit, and Shi, along with her team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, had been discovering them by the fistful in bat caves. In one sample of bat guano, Shi had detected the genome of a new virus, called SHC014, that was one of the two closest relatives to the original SARS virus, but her team had not been able to culture it in the lab.

Baric had developed a way around that problem—a technique for “reverse genetics” in coronaviruses. Not only did it allow him to bring an actual virus to life from its genetic code, but he could mix and match parts of multiple viruses. He wanted to take the “spike” gene from SHC014 and move it into a genetic copy of the SARS virus he already had in his lab. The spike molecule is what lets a coronavirus open a cell and get inside it. The resulting chimera would demonstrate whether the spike of SHC014 would attach to human cells.

If it could, then it could help him with his long-term project of developing universal drugs and vaccines against the full spectrum of SARS-like viruses that he increasingly considered sources of potential pandemics. A SARS vaccine had been developed, but it wasn’t expected to be very effective against related coronaviruses, just as flu shots rarely work against new strains. To develop a universal vaccine that will elicit an antibody response against a gamut of SARS-like viruses, you need to show the immune system a cocktail of spikes. SHC014 could be one of them.

Baric asked Shi if he could have the genetic data for SHC014. “She was gracious enough to send us those sequences almost immediately,” he says. His team introduced the virus modified with that code into mice and into a petri dish of human airway cells. Sure enough, the chimera exhibited “robust replication” in the human cells—evidence that nature was full of coronaviruses ready to leap directly to people. […]”

Baric then wrote a popular paper about the danger of bat-coronaviruses, in which he advanced research into the chimeras, getting an NIH waiver despite a temporary ban on gain of function research. In that paper he writes, fatefully, “The potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens,” adding, “Scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue.

Despite the warning, Anthony Fauci and the NIH threw caution to the wind and funded work similar to Baric’s at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which soon used its own reverse-genetics technology to make numerous coronavirus chimeras.

Fast-forward to 2021, Baric and a team of researchers at UNC may finally be close to creating that universal mRNA vaccine for coronaviruses that motivated his research all those years ago; one delivering instructions to create four separate spike proteins. In terrible irony, the vaccine would be used to inoculate people against a virus Baric may very well have had a hand in creating and has wreaked havoc on the world.

In reporting the potentially game-changing news, the Daily Tar Heel buries the Baric connection:

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, researchers in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health have developed a new universal coronavirus vaccine, with the potential to protect against multiple coronaviruses, as well as the different variants of COVID-19.

David Martinez, a Hanna H. Gray Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and one of the lead authors of the study, explained what makes the research unique. 

“Our vaccine is really different than the original vaccines in that it aims to not only protect against COVID-19 and some of the variants of concern, but our vaccine can actually protect against the original SARS coronavirus from 2003, as well as close cousins that circulate in bats, for example,” Martinez said.

According to Martinez, this universal coronavirus vaccine functions similarly to the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. However, instead of administering the mRNA code for one spike protein, this vaccine administers the mRNA code for four different spike proteins at the same time.

“The only difference is that we’ve generated spikes that are really designed in a way to maximize the breadth of the immune responses,” Martinez said.

The development of this universal coronavirus vaccine began in spring 2020. Around that time, Martinez and Ralph Baric, the other lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at the Public Health School, began thinking about different ways to engineer spike vaccines to have more immune recognition. […]”

‘The other lead author of the study,’ is probably taking second billing for a reason.

The researchers actually created the physical experimental vaccine for animal trials in June of last year, but because of THE PANDEMIC they couldn’t ship them to begin testing until November. As such, they’ve yet to start human trials for this new universal vaccine, but, if/when the vaccine is approved, the researchers anticipate it could replace the mRNA vaccines by Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna, by offering more diverse protection.

Create a virus, make a billion dollars treating it. How ’bout those Tar Heels.

Read more on Baric’s gain of function research here.

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