UPDATE University of Pittsburgh reports successful COVID-19 vaccine trial

By ERIC POOLE Herald Assistant Editor

PITTSBURGH – Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine report initial success in animal trials for a vaccine to neutralize the virus that causes COVID-19.

During tests in mice, the vaccine was shown to produce antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2, known as the novel coronavirus. University researchers said the mice responded with antibodies sufficient to neutralize the virus.

The researchers released their findings today in a paper published in EBioMedicine, published by The Lancet, a leading British medical journal.

The authors said they are now in the process of seeking investigatory new drug approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with expectation of beginning human clinical trial within the next few months.

Dr. Andrea Gambotto, co-senior author of the paper, said the university researchers were able to move so quickly because they were already working on vaccines for similar viruses.

“We had previous experience on SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014,” Gambotto said. “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.”

The researchers are calling the vaccine PittCoVacc, short for Pittsburgh Coronavirus Vaccine. The process uses laboratory-made pieces of viral protein to build immunity, similar to the process of annual vaccinations for the flu.

This differs from the experimental vaccines, which focus on RNA development, that have recently entered clinical trials.

For delivery, the vaccine uses a microneedle array, a fingertip-sized patch of 400 tiny needles that deliver the spike protein into the skin. The patch, similar to an adhesive bandage, is affixed to the patient and the needles, which are made of sugar, dissolve into the skin.

“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 Dr. Louis Falo, a professor and chairman of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Additional authors on the study are Eun Kim, Geza Erdos, Shohua Huang, Thomas Kenniston, Stephen Balmert, Cara Donahue Carey, Michael Epperly, William Klimstra and Emrullah Korkmaz of Pitt and Bart Haagmans of Erasmus Medical Center.

Funding for the study came from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases and National Cancer Institute.

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