COVID-19 Vaccine Makers Are Looking Beyond the Spike Protein

It’s time for more weapons in the shots-versus-virus arms race.


In the race to build the world’s first round of coronavirus vaccines, the spike protein—the thorny knobs that adorn each of the pathogen’s particles—was our MVP. Spike is a key ingredient in virtually every one of our current pandemic-fighting shots; it has been repeatedly billed as essential for tickling out any immune response worth its salt. “People put all their eggs in the spike basket,” Juliet Morrison, a virologist at UC Riverside, told me. And it undoubtedly paid off.

In recent months, though, it’s become clear that the coronavirus is a slippery, shape-shifting foe—and spike appears to be one of its most malleable traits. Eventually, our first generation of spike-centric vaccines will likely become obsolete. To get ahead of that inevitability, several companies are already looking to develop new vaccine formulations packed with additional bits of the coronavirus, ushering in an end to our monogamous affair with spike. The potential perks of this tactic run the gamut: More vaccine ingredients could help the body identify more targets to attack, and loop in untapped reservoirs of immune cells that have no interest in spike. Multifaceted shots also up the ante for the virus, which can alter only so many aspects of its anatomy at once. “It’s like diversifying a portfolio,” William Matchett, a vaccinologist at the University of Minnesota who’s researching reformulated COVID-19 vaccines, told me.

To be clear, setting our sights on spike has served us well. The vaccines we’ve built against the coronavirus continue to be astoundingly effective shields against disease largely because the protein is such an excellent teaching tool for an immune system that’s readying itself to duel. Spike, which helps the virus unlock and enter human cells, is one of the pathogen’s most salient and dangerous features, certainly among the first that will be spotted by immune cells and molecules on patrol.




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