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Scientists are racing to develop coronavirus drugs that could fight the common cold and protect us from the next pandemic

  • Companies like Novartis, Gritstone Oncology and VBI Vaccines are developing pan-coronavirus drugs.
  • Coronaviruses cause everything from the common cold to COVID-19.  
  • The effort could be critical, as experts estimate coronaviruses will affect our lives forever. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Last February, as the new coronavirus started to appear in the US, scientists began revisiting an idea that had been abandoned by many top drug companies years ago: creating a universal drug for coronaviruses. 

These viruses, known for their spiky appearance, can cause COVID-19, SARS, and the common cold, among other illnesses. Work on vaccines or treatments for two previous coronavirus threats, the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2012 MERS outbreak, was largely shelved when those pathogens faded. 

But experts don’t think that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, will disappear.

The big pharmaceutical firm Novartis is now one of several drugmakers working on drugs that could help protect humanity from COVID-19 and the mutations that are popping up across the globe, and also from other ailments caused by coronaviruses. History shows that coronaviruses are something to take seriously.

“There’s now the third coronavirus pandemic in the last 20 years. It’s likely that if there’s a fourth, it’s going to be a coronavirus. If there’s a fifth, it’s probably going to be a coronavirus,” said John Tallarico, the head of chemical biology and therapeutics at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Across the industry, the work is still in the early stages, and in most cases, experimental therapies aren’t ready to be tested in people. It’s not yet clear if any of the drugmakers will succeed, or if it will come in time to help with the current pandemic.

The biggest barrier for wide-ranging coronavirus drugs is finding the common thread 

The majority of efforts to address coronaviruses are still focused on SARS-CoV-2 and the variants that have begun to emerge. Predicting how a virus will change and mutate, then examining how different versions infect people would take years, said Igor Splawski, the chief scientific officer at vaccine developer CureVac. 

Treatments and vaccines protect the human body against viruses in different ways. Virus treatments, sometimes called antivirals, disable components inside of a virus in order to stop it from replicating and infecting healthy human cells. Vaccines, on the other hand, work by training the body to fight off these pathogens. They usually do this by giving the immune system a small piece or a safer version of the virus that it can familiarize itself with, like giving a sniffer dog a piece of clothing with a person’s scent. 

To make a universal coronavirus vaccine, drug developers need to figure out a way to train our bodies to recognize every coronavirus. To do that, they’d have to identify an element that’s common to all coronaviruses, and isn’t susceptible to change. SARS and SARS-CoV-2 are quite similar, Gritstone Oncology CEO Andrew Allen told Insider, but MERS — another coronavirus — has major differences. 

Right now, vaccines that fight COVID-19 train the body to recognize the spike proteins on the surface of the virus.

But experts theorize that the common threads in coronaviruses lie deep within the cell, beyond the spike proteins on the surface. Traditional vaccine science struggled to penetrate that deeply, but new approaches like messenger RNA and adenovirus vectors may give vaccine makers more leverage. 

Spike Protein coronavirus

3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus surface (blue) is covered with spike proteins (red) that enable the virus to enter and infect human cells.

NIH/Getty Images


Rajeev Venkayya, the head of Takeda’s vaccine business and a board member at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said he believes the drug industry has the capability to make universal coronavirus drugs. Both CEPI and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are funding pan-coronavirus work.

Biotechs are adopting different strategies to bridge the gap between coronaviruses 

The team at Novartis thinks that they may be able to find a treatment that works for all coronaviruses by targeting the main protease, a critical component the virus needs to replicate. The protease is consistent across coronaviruses, according to Tallarico, and the method showed some signs of success during the SARS pandemic

Ideally, the drug could address everything from SARS-CoV-2 to the common cold, but Novartis may choose to focus on the most serious coronaviruses.

“If we come to a point where we have to choose advancing a molecule that is more effective on coronaviruses that cause acute respiratory distress at the expense of being less effective for the common cold, we would focus on the infections that are more dangerous,” Tallarico said. 

The plan is to create an oral pill that could be taken at home, akin to Tamiflu for influenza or a Z-pack for bronchitis or pneumonia — a concept that has been advocated for by NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci. Novartis hopes to have a candidate ready for clinical trials by the end of 2022. 

Massachusetts-based drug company VBI Vaccines, which is known for its hepatitis B vaccine, is currently developing multiple vaccines in response to the pandemic. One of those, VBI-2901, is designed around the different spike proteins linked to Covid-19, SARS and MERS. Testing of a three-dose regimen in a lab showed the vaccine may also boost immune responses to the common cold.

The company expects to start testing the vaccine in people later this year. 

VBI Vaccines pan-coronavirus vaccine

VBI Vaccines is currently developing a vaccine that could address many forms of coronaviruses, including SARS, MERS and the common cold.

VBI Vaccines


Gritstone Oncology, meanwhile, has historically been focused on finding ways to use the immune system to fight cancer, but is now working on coronavirus vaccines. The California company is collaborating with researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology to find regions of the virus that are similar across coronaviruses and which would be the best targets for a pan-coronavirus vaccine. 

Gritstone doesn’t currently have an estimate for when it will identify an experimental vaccine to test in humans. 

A handful of other smaller, early-stage efforts are currently underway across the drug industry. It’s likely that some of them will be shelved once the world gets a handle on COVID-19, much in the same way SARS drugs were left behind after the 2003 outbreak ended. 

“I think there will be an inevitable tapering of efforts. Our hope is there will be a hard-core group that continues to focus on the pan-coronavirus products,” Allen said.

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