Scientists work out how to predict future Covid variants that could evade vaccines

Scientists work out how to predict future Covid variants that could evade vaccines

Scientists work out how to predict future Covid variants that could evade vaccines

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Could a new variant evade all current vaccines? (Getty)

Scientists may be able to use artificial intelligence (AI) to predict new variants of COVID and figure out whether vaccines will be effective against them.

The researchers say the new artificial intelligence technique could answer questions such as how protected people will be vaccinated against a new variant and whether antibody therapies will still work.

The answers could be provided in near real time, the researchers, led by Professor Sai Reddy of the ETH Zurich’s Biosystem Science and Engineering Department in Basel.

The researchers also believe that being able to identify new variants “early” could lead to new ways to develop new drugs or vaccines.

According to the researchers, the technology could also be used to develop new treatments for viruses such as the flu.

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“Of course, no one knows which variant of SARS-CoV-2 will emerge next,” says prof. Reddy. “But what we can do is identify key mutations that may be present in future variants and then work to develop vaccines in advance that provide a wider range of protection against these potential future variants.”

“Machine learning could support antibody drug development by allowing researchers to identify which antibodies have the potential to be most effective against current and future variants.”

As viruses mutate randomly, no one can know exactly how SARS-CoV-2 will evolve in the coming months and years and which variants will dominate in the future.

The new method takes a global approach: for each potential variant, it predicts whether or not it is capable of infecting human cells and whether it will be neutralized by the antibodies produced by the immune system found in vaccinated and cured people.

The researchers believe that hidden among all these potential variants is the one that will dominate the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof Reddy and his team used laboratory experiments to generate a large collection of mutated variants of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

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Scientists did not produce or work with live viruses, but only produced part of the spike protein, and thus there was no danger of a laboratory leak.

The spike protein interacts with the ACE2 protein on human cells for infection, and antibodies from vaccination, infection, or antibody therapy work by blocking this mechanism.

Many of the mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 variants occur in this region, which allows the virus to evade the immune system and continue to spread.

The collection of mutated variants that the researchers analyzed comprises only a small fraction of the several billion theoretically possible variants, which would be impossible to test in a laboratory setting, contains one million such variants.

By performing high-throughput experiments and sequencing the DNA of these millions of variants, the researchers determined how successfully these variants interact with the ACE2 protein and existing antibody therapies.

This indicates how well the individual potential variants could infect human cells and how well they could escape the antibodies.

The researchers used the collected data to train machine learning models, which are capable of identifying complex patterns and, when given only the DNA sequence of a new variant, could accurately predict whether it can bind to ACE2 for infection and escape neutralizing antibodies.

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Final machine learning models can now be used to make these predictions for tens of billions of theoretically possible variants with single and combinatorial mutations and well over the million that have been tested in the laboratory.

The new method will help develop the next generation of antibody therapies. Many of these antibody drugs were developed to treat the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and approved for use in the United States and Europe.

Researchers are already working with biotech companies that are developing next-generation COVID-19 antibody therapies.

Watch: UK regulators approve new COVID vaccine booster

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