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Universal coronavirus vaccine could save millions of lives if ready before next pandemic

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If a universal vaccine vaccine were available at the start of the pandemic, it could have saved millions of lives, prevented suffering and saved billions of dollars in direct medical and other costs until the strain-specific vaccine went through the entire development, testing and emergency use authorisation process, a new study has concluded.

The new research shows that having a universal vaccine at the start of the pandemic would have had substantial health and economic benefits under almost all scenarios tested.

Peter J. Hotez, MD, PhD, is dean of Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

He said: “COVID-19 was the third major and serious coronavirus epidemic or pandemic following SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012, thus, we should anticipate a fourth coronavirus outbreak within the next decade or so.

A universal vaccine is cost-effective and cost-saving and a priority for advancement.”

The researchers developed a computational model that simulated the entire US population, the introduction and spread of a novel coronavirus like SARS-CoV-2 in 2020 and the resulting health and economic outcomes.

The experiments simulated what would happen if a universal coronavirus vaccine was available at the start of the Covid pandemic.

Vaccinating with a universal coronavirus vaccine as a standalone intervention (e.g., no face mask use or social distancing) was cost-saving even when its efficacy was as low as 10 per cent and only 10 per cent of the US population received the vaccine.

For example, when a universal coronavirus vaccine has 10 per cent efficacy, vaccinating a quarter of the US population within two months of the start of the pandemic averts an average of 14.6 million infections and saves over $27 billion (£21 billion) in direct medical costs.

Such low vaccine coverage at the start of the pandemic could occur if a vaccine were only made available to certain high-risk subpopulations (e.g., 65 years and older, those with weakened immune systems and frontline workers), similar to the approach when mRNA vaccines became available in December 2020.

A universal coronavirus vaccine was also shown to be highly cost-effective even if a more specific and more efficacious vaccine entered market.

For example, the study showed if it takes four months or longer for a strain-specific vaccine to reach the market, using a universal vaccine was still cost cost-saving.

In a scenario where a strain-specific vaccine has 90 per cent efficacy but is unavailable for two months after the start of the pandemic, the results from the model show that vaccinating only 10 per cent of the population with a universal vaccine that has 10 per cent efficacy at the start of the pandemic can save over $2 billion (£1.5 billion) in societal costs.

Given the time required to develop a strain-specific vaccine during a pandemic to match circulating strains of the virus, the research highlights the importance of having a universal vaccine readily available as a stopgap.

Bruce Y. Lee, MD, MBA is executive director of PHICOR and professor at CUNY SPH.

The researcher said: “Our study shows the importance of giving as many people as possible in a population at least some degree of immune protection as soon as possible.

“Having a universal vaccine developed, stockpiled, and ready to go in the event of a pandemic could be a game-changer even if a more specific vaccine could be developed three to four months later.”

Generally, results from the model found that a universal vaccine would end up saving money if the cost to get a person vaccinated (e.g., cost of the vaccine itself, distribution, administration, storage, research, and development) is as high as $10,390 (£8,145) from a societal perspective.

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