COVID Vaccine ready?

PITTSBURGH – University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine scientists today announced a potential vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic. When tested in mice, the vaccine, delivered through a fingertip-sized patch, produces antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2 at quantities thought to be sufficient for neutralizing the virus.

The paper appeared today in EBioMedicine, which is published by The Lancet, and is the first study to be published after critique from fellow scientists at outside institutions that describes a candidate vaccine for COVID-19. The researchers were able to act quickly because they had already laid the groundwork during earlier coronavirus epidemics.

“We had previous experience on SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014. 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. We knew exactly where to fight this new virus,” said co-senior author Andrea Gambotto, M.D., associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine. “That’s why it’s important to fund vaccine research. You never know where the next pandemic will come from.”

“Our ability to rapidly develop this vaccine was a result of scientists with expertise in diverse areas of research working together with a common goal,” said co-senior author Louis Falo, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of dermatology at Pitt’s School of Medicine and UPMC.

Compared to the experimental mRNA vaccine candidate that just entered clinical trials, the vaccine described in this paper — which the authors are calling PittCoVacc, short for Pittsburgh Coronavirus Vaccine — follows a more established approach, using lab-made pieces of viral protein to build immunity. It’s the same way the current flu shots work.

The researchers also used a novel approach to deliver the drug, called a microneedle array, to increase potency. This array is a fingertip-sized patch of 400 tiny needles that delivers the spike protein pieces into the skin, where the immune reaction is strongest. The patch goes on like a Band-Aid and then the needles — which are made entirely of sugar and the protein pieces — simply dissolve into the skin.

“We developed this to build on the original scratch method used to deliver the smallpox vaccine to the skin, but as a high-tech version that is more efficient and reproducible patient to patient,” Falo said. “And it’s actually pretty painless — it feels kind of like Velcro.”

The system also is highly scalable. The protein pieces are manufactured by a “cell factory” — layers upon layers of cultured cells engineered to express the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein — that can be stacked further to multiply yield. Purifying the protein also can be done at industrial scale. Mass-producing the microneedle array involves spinning down the protein-sugar mixture into a mold using a centrifuge. Once manufactured, the vaccine can sit at room temperature until it’s needed, eliminating the need for refrigeration during transport or storage.



  • I actually struggled through the paper itself, and it is encouraging in a couple of ways. It is not, however, anywhere near a stage where a vaccine is around the corner.

    Most encouraging is their vaccine delivery system. Micro Needle Array technology, where the vaccine is loaded onto sugar needles arrayed on a band aid, and then stuck on the skin. Apparently the skin is much more susceptible to antibody development than muscle injection would be, and thus this technology would apparently result in more robust antibody response than subcutaneous injection, the method by which we receive our normal flu injection each fall.

    While the development of recombinant DNA subunit vaccines is also encouraging, there is clear need for caution. Pittsburgh has apparently been working on a vaccine for MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), a close cousin the COVID-19, since MERS first appeared in 2012. It is still in animal trials, and trying to find the right DNA combinations before it moves to a Phase I trial. Their SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) work has been piggy-backed on their MERS work. So their SARS-CoV-2 immunization is still in the mouse stage, and their results at this stage are still inconclusive on the question of antibody development. They are still guessing a bit.

    Assuming all goes according to plan, the researchers are still cautious. They appear to anticipate that human trials are still at least 6 months, and maybe longer, away.
  • Thank the Trump Administration for fast tracking these vaccines.

    True leadership.
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