U.S. scientists work to fast-track coronavirus vaccine

Americans are reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on their lives and livelihoods. The U.S. now has 245,413 COVID-19 cases and the death toll has jumped to 6,054.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has called on the government to issue a nationwide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the disease. He anticipates a CDC advisory to wear masks in public will ‘come soon’. 

 Scientists around the world only received the genetic code for COVID-19 around ten weeks ago, but University of Pittsburgh researchers believe they have found a potential vaccine. They are hoping it could be rolled out quickly and delivered on a small, fingertip-sized patch.

The scientists announced their findings in a Lancet publication, EBioMedicine on Thursday, noting “our studies suggest that it may now be possible to produce clinical grade vaccines against novel pathogens for human testing and subsequent global distribution in time to significantly impact the spread of disease.”

 The researchers have been building on their previous studies of coronaviruses SARS and MERS which are similar to COVID-19. The vaccine has been tested on mice and produced enough antibodies over a two-week period to convince them it would successfully counteract the virus.

“These two viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, teach us that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus,” said co-senior author Andrea Gambotto, M.D., associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine in the UPMC announcement.

“We knew exactly where to fight this new virus.”

The researchers are following the traditional approach used for ordinary flu vaccines, using lab-made pieces of viral protein to build immunity. They decided to use a patch, rather than a traditional needle, to deliver the spike protein to the skin, in order to elicit the strongest immune reaction.

The patch contains 400 tiny “microneedles” made of sugar and protein pieces and would be applied like a Band-Aid with the needles dissolving into the skin.

Researchers typically conduct scientific characterization of a vaccine and the process for producing it, including scaling the manufacturing process to commercial levels before moving it into human testing.

“For most vaccines, you don’t need to address scalability to begin with,” Gambotto said. “But when you try to develop a vaccine quickly against a pandemic that’s the first requirement.”

The researchers are now applying for an investigational new drug approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and hope to start human clinical trials within the next few months.

Massachusetts-based biotech firm Moderna Therapeutics also developed a COVID-19 vaccine which was the first anywhere in the world to begin human trials on March 16.

The researchers expect it to move to phase 2 human trials in the spring or early summer. It was developed with researchers at the National Institutes of Health and is one of more than three dozen vaccines currently under development.