Pandemic preparedness: five minutes with . . . Katie DooresBMJ 2023; 380 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p287 (Published 03 February 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;380:p287
“In my lab we study different emerging pathogens, particularly viruses that pass from animals to humans. Because the human population potentially is naive to these viruses, they can spread and cause pandemics. What we’re trying to understand is how the interaction between our immune system and viruses leads to production of immunity. By understanding that, we can then start thinking about how to develop vaccines that would prepare us for these types of viruses if they were to then cause or become the next pandemic.
“Before the covid-19 pandemic we worked on hantavirus, which is mainly spread by rodents and can cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome and haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome in humans; rhinoviruses, which often cause sore throats, ear infections, and sinus infections; and flaviviruses—dengue virus, tickborne encephalitis virus, yellow fever virus, and Zika virus. But when covid-19 hit, we turned our attention to looking at antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2.
“The initial research we did was all very urgent. But covid now provides an opportunity to look at immune responses on a global scale where everybody was naive to that virus initially. So, I think now some basic fundamental questions can be answered in immunology by using this as a model system.
“For example, we’ve all been immunised with a Wuhan vaccine multiple times, and the antibodies produced end up being quite broad and can provide protection against all these different variants that are arising. But in the HIV field, if you were to immunise lots of times with the same thing, your immune response would focus on parts of the virus that were very variable in other viruses from other people—which doesn’t lead to the desired response. So, it’s now about understanding the fundamentals of those differences and how we could use that information to design vaccines in the future that would give really broad protection.
“When we think about pandemic preparedness, we know some viruses that exist in animals and we can study those in detail, but we don’t necessarily know every virus. Before SARS-CoV-2 emerged people had already studied the structure of the spike protein of related coronaviruses, which would form the antigen in the vaccines. They’d also worked out how to stabilise that protein in a conformation that would be a good vaccine target. So, lots of work had been done beforehand, which meant that the vaccine could be developed more quickly.
“However, there are whole families of viruses where it’s uncertain how the viral glycoprotein interacts with its receptor. This information is important for stopping that interaction through antibody responses and being able to rapidly translate that if a new virus passes into the human population.”
Katie Doores is a senior lecturer and researcher at the Department of Infectious Diseases at King’s College, London.
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