Spring 2022

Living with COVID: Warding Off Future Pandemics with a Universal Vaccine

article summary

A vaccine that works against multiple coronaviruses can help protect against future outbreaks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a prime, real-time example of public health practice in action. Gillings faculty and students continue to play central roles in informing ongoing response efforts; in working on vaccines and treatments to prevent serious infections and stave off future pandemics; and in talking about lessons learned from SARS-CoV-2, whether that’s how to talk about personal health decisions or how to better protect vulnerable communities.

Timing was everything for David Martinez, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Ralph Baric, PhD, William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of epidemiology, since 2018. He completed his Biosafety Level 3 lab training in March 2020 — just as the virus began to spread in the United States — allowing him to work in the lab studying COVID-19 alongside world-renowned virologist Baric and other coronavirus experts in a lab that was already equipped to be a leader in responding to the pandemic. 

“We already had all these systems and protocols in place to work with cousins of this virus, so when it hit, we did not have to reinvent the wheel — we could rapidly transition into SARS-CoV-2 research,” says Martinez, who is a Hanna H. Gray Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Having expertise like that absolutely positioned us into knowing exactly what questions we needed to answer to make a contribution, and we were able to rapidly produce reagents that were useful to the field — not just in understanding fundamental biology of the virus, but in collaborating with major pharmaceutical companies to actually develop products that are now widely used, including the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 shots.”

"If history is to repeat itself, it’s of critical importance that we work on universal-based approaches now so that we are ready the next time a coronavirus emerges."

— David Martinez, PhD

Another product is a universal vaccine that would ward off future outbreaks by protecting against several types of coronaviruses that are likely to jump from animals to humans. Martinez, Baric and the research team developed a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 and other group coronaviruses, such as the original SARS virus and bat SARS-related viruses that could emerge at a later time. The vaccine prevented both infection and lung damage in mice, and additional testing could lead to human clinical trials next year. The team continues to work on next-generation vaccines that could introduce additional proteins that may make vaccines work better in controlling breakthrough infections.

“There is absolutely a need for universal-based vaccines that can target a broader group of coronaviruses,” Martinez says, noting that historically, a new type of pathogenic coronavirus tends to emerge within a decade of its predecessor. “If history is to repeat itself, it’s of critical importance that we work on universal-based approaches now so that we are ready the next time a coronavirus emerges.”

Martinez grew up in El Salvador, where his father was a physician who often treated infectious diseases. When his family moved to the U.S. in 2003, he decided to study microbiology at Oklahoma University. After he completed a virology course he took as a senior, he changed his research and career focus. He received his doctoral degree from Duke University. 

“And then, in 2018, I had the opportunity to work in the lab of the world’s leading coronavirologist, so I couldn’t turn that offer down,” Martinez says. “This is the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and it’s nice when the name of the school can also serve its purpose. The Baric Lab as a team can do just that — contribute to global public health — and that has been the opportunity of a lifetime.”

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