Mountain West Scientists Contributing To The Race For A COVID-19 Vaccine

Originally published on March 13, 2020 2:15 pm

Teams around the world -- including at least two labs in the Mountain West -- are racing to develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus. 

A group at Colorado State University is working on ways to inactivate the virus, which is one option for developing a vaccine. 

Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, a National Institutes of Health biomedical research facility, is also contributing to the vaccine race. Scientists there are studying exactly how the virus infects a host, and identifying which animals best mimic the disease in humans. They’re also trying to answer the question of how long the new coronavirus can survive outside a host. (RML is also responsible for creating the coronavirus images you may have seen around the web).

The labs’ research earlier this year on a dozen monkeys showed that the antiviral drug remdesivir helped fend off infection with a different kind of coronavirus. People are now studying whether the drug could help against COVID-19, too. 

Usually vaccines take a decade or more to develop. For this coronavirus, the repeat refrain is that it’ll probably take at least a year, though some are optimistic it could be sooner. 

Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, told NPR he hopes it’ll be available “potentially as early as this fall.” The organization has pushed about $24 million to universities and pharmaceutical companies working on a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Regardless of the exact timeline, public health officials say a vaccine could still be useful in controlling this outbreak. 

“It’s fair to say that as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time -- either this year or next -- be exposed to this virus,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier told reporters Monday. Messonier directs the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci with the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said it was “quite conceivable” that the current coronavirus “will go beyond just a season, and come back and recycle next year. In that case, we hope to have a vaccine.”

There are a number of ways to make a vaccine. One option is to use a weakened form of the virus itself. Other options include using a killed version of the virus, using proteins that stick out from the virus’ surface, or using pieces of the virus’ DNA or RNA

“There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these approaches,” said Ray Goodrich, executive director of the Infectious Disease Research Center at CSU. 

For example, a vaccine made from a weakened virus creates an immune response strong enough that it doesn’t require booster shots to maintain protection against the illness, but they’re also considered riskier for people with weakened immune systems. The other types of vaccine tend to require booster shots, but are considered safe for a broader group of people.

Goodrich said he and his colleagues are taking the route of the killed virus “because we have a way to do this in a rapid and logistically practical fashion.” 

As the Colorado Sun has reported, Goodrich’s team is experimenting with a method to inactivate the coronavirus that, as they wrote in the journal Transfusion, killed microscopic parasites, HIV and bacteria in infected animal blood.

“If the vaccine is effective in providing what is called ‘sterilizing immunity’ that is persistent and long-lasting, then we can scale up this process in a relatively rapid way,” he said.

Alan Rudolph, CSU’s vice president for research, said the method has been used to inactivate other coronaviruses and is already in use around the globe to clean blood.

“We anticipate an 8-month period to get to human testing,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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