Famously, there is no cure for the common cold. But with the success of the Covid vaccine, could it finally be in grabbing – or, rather, jabbing – distance? I asked Prof Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at the University of Manchester, about the possibility of a cold vaccine.
I have just recovered from what everyone is calling the “super cold”. It was awful. Eyes streaming, head about to explode. I hadn’t felt like that since I found out Boris Johnson had won the election. Could a vaccine end this misery?
Let’s take a step back. The common cold is just a blanket term for different upper respiratory viruses: adenoviruses, coronaviruses, parainfluenza and so on. Rhinoviruses are the most common cause, but there are roughly 160 variations. So a vaccine that works on one might not work on another. And they’re expensive and complicated to make. A company isn’t going to fund something that doesn’t work against many strains.
It’s a shame that it’s not seen as worth funding. I know the 60s was a big time for cold research. I’ll never forget learning about a centre in Salisbury where, if they needed volunteers, they’d place adverts such as: ‘Come get a free holiday in the countryside – you just need to huff these bags of diseased air.’ Did any of those teams get close?
No – their vaccines could only protect for a little while against one type of virus. But today we’re much more advanced. For example, there’s work being done on a cold vaccine that can recognise multiple virus strains at once.
It’s the Oxford group doing it, actually. It’s at phase-two trials, and it’s an intranasal vaccine.
So up the nose. Sexy.
Our better understanding of how the virus gets into cells means we can target that specific point. That’s what the coronavirus vaccine does – it targets the spike domains, which is how Covid gets into our body. Pfizer and Moderna are looking into doing the same for common cold viruses.
Look at all those big names working on it! Dream team! It’s a shame vaccines aren’t like Waterstones or I’d pre-order.
Well, you could sign up to the trials.
No, thank you.
It would be exciting – you never know, you might get the placebo rather than the vaccine.
I would happily take nothing in pursuit of science. Oh, another thing about a cold vaccine: could it give lasting protection?
Survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic were still producing neutralising antibodies 80 years later. We call that an “immune memory” – their immune system remembers how to fight and produces what it needs to ward off the virus. But we don’t see that with some cold viruses. In fact, the data suggests we need a bit to get in – a little poke from the virus – to remind us how to fight it. That might be why we’re seeing more severe cold symptoms now: lockdowns meant we didn’t get colds to give us the reminder. Also, some of these viruses interfere with our immune memory.
Devious little critters
Exactly. So it would be challenging to make a vaccine that lasts long term.
You’re not going to stop me getting excited about a common cold vaccine. There is a cold-free future ahead!
One day, Coco, one day.