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UPMC Researcher: Vaccine Not Likely Until Early 2021

A vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t likely to be ready in time for a possible second wave of novel coronavirus that many are projecting will come this fall.

Dr. William Klimstra, a UPMC Center for Vaccine Research doctor, discussed progress on COVID-19 vaccines Wednesday during a Facebook Live discussion with Eugene DePasquale, Pennsylvania auditor general.

UPMC researchers are working on three vaccines, two of which are waiting for human clinical trials to begin and a third that is still in the early phases of development. There are hundreds of possible vaccines in various stages of Development, Klimstra said, according to a database that he has seen.

“I don’t think we’ll have a vaccine until the start of 2021,” Klimstra said. “This is based on historical precedent. Things are moving faster than they have historically. I cannot personally predict exactly the timing. If it were available in mid-winter that would still lower the instance of infection for uninfected people during the second half of the winter. Again, that would be dependent on how many people are willing to take the vaccine. We need to get the number of people willing to take the vaccine to be higher.”

The UPMC Center for Vaccine Research is involved in COVID-19 vaccine research because it is a regional biocontainment facility, and Klimstra said experimental work on viruses like COVID-19 require a high biosafety rating. The UPMC lab is one of 14 similar laboratories put in place by sponsoring universities and the National Institutes of Health after the anthrax attacks in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Historically, Klimstra has worked on alphaviruses, infectious agents that replicate in humans and many animals. Types of alphaviruses include the Chikungunya virus, Semliki Forest virus and Sindbis virus that are usually transmitted by mosquitoes. Klimstra is like many researchers who found themselves moving from other research to COVID-19 vaccine research when many laboratories found switching gears to work on coronavirus research.

“We had a meeting of all the faculty in the center toward the end of January, actually, and made the decision that we were going to switch all the activities in the center to COVID-19 research,” Klimstra said. “The initial thing we started doing was developing animal models so that we knew how we could look for efficacy of vaccines and antiviral drugs. That’s been our most intensive activity. We were among the earliest to do this, but within two or three weeks of the time that we made the decision, actually, most institutions that had appropriate biosafety and biocontainment did. Part of that was motivated by the fact that non-COVID research was curtailed at most institutions around the country, and so you had a whole lot of scientists sitting around with not a whole lot to do, so basically they have utilized their talents in whatever area they might study to apply them to the problem.”

A MULTITUDE OF CORONAVIRUSES

Coronaviruses are very diverse, Klimstra said, with types of coronaviruses found in whales, seals, pigs and birds, for example. What makes the novel coronavirus different, Klimstra said, is the mutation that allowed COVID-19 to mutate from one that infected bats into a virus that could grow in humans. The fact that there are so many strains of coronavirus, and they have the ability to mutate and affect humans, is a lesson Klimstra said should be learned from this 2020 worldwide coronavirus outbreak.

“Influenza has essentially been circulating in humans for hundreds of years, so everybody has had exposure to a kind of influenza,” Klimstra said. “So when a new one comes along, even though you might get sick, you’re a little bit immune to it. With this coronavirus, really, people haven’t seen a virus like this before so they are completely unprotected from it. That’s one of the reasons it gets more severe. Coronaviruses just happen to do this kind of thing a lot. That’s been understood, actually, since the original SARS outbreak in 2002-03 that it was understood that these things can jump between species. This is actually one of the lessons I hope the funding agencies in general and the health system in the United States learns is that this thing is likely to happen again and we need to have things on the shelf, shelf-ready, to respond to this kind of outbreak in the future. It probably will happen again.”

In March, Dr. Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine, expressed a similar sentiment when discussing development of PittCoVacc, short for Pittsburgh Coronavirus Vaccine that is one of the three COVID-19 vaccines under development at UPMC.

Gambotto told reporters that UPMC researchers were able to have a potential vaccine ready for human trial quickly because of prior research into SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014 that taught researchers that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus. With the MERS vaccine in 2014, researchers tested different platforms and determined that the sub-unit protein vaccine was as good as other genetic systems. That work laid a baseline when genetic information about COVID-19 was discovered this year. Funding couldn’t be secured to continue prior research into the clinical trials phase. Gambotto said UPMC researchers were in a front line position in 2003 to proceed with clinical trials when funding for their research dried up after the SARS virus suddenly disappeared. The same thing happened in 2014 with the MERS-CoV.

“There was no interest,” Gambotto said in March. “2014 was pretty much the same story. We developed a vaccine and actually last year we did propose to run a clinical trial that in the end was not funded. We didn’t have the resources to move this vaccine beyond the pre-clinical implementation. With the MERS, we determined that the immunity we were getting from our vaccine did correlate with what one would expect what one would predict would be the response against SARS-coronavirus-2. We have selected this vaccine format because we believe it is one of the most broad-based and easy to translate to a vaccine.”

MOVING FORWARD

In addition to sustained funding for research and vaccine production, Klimstra said he thinks a coordinated effort is necessary to get the vaccine into the hands of as many people as possible regardless of financial circumstance.

“What I would like to see, I’m not sure that’s what I’m going to see, is a coherent and focused government effort to make this vaccine available to everybody,” Klimstra said. “Most of the entities that are funding work on the virus right now and on vaccines have as part of their charge with respect to funding the efforts is that there won’t be any economic issue in terms of people getting it. Now I’m hopeful that will be the case in terms of people who are more at risk, obviously senior populations, particularly in close environments like nursing homes and things that are at risk. I feel like the effort hopefully will be so massive there won’t be a restriction or there won’t be a population that gets it first, that there actually will be enough available and one of the things about some of the new vaccine technologies that are being used is they actually can make unlimited supplies of it. There are no real limitation in how much can be made if they’re shown to be safe and effective. Hopefully there won’t be restrictions. You have people whose lives are more at risk, older populations, but we also need to get the economy back running and the people who are in the middle of life need to be back at work.”

The AP-NORC poll found that among Americans who say they wouldn’t get vaccinated, 7 in 10 worry about safety while 3 in 10 who don’t want a vaccine don’t fear getting seriously ill from the coronavirus. The poll found 67% of people 60 and older say they’d get vaccinated, compared with 40% who are younger. Death counts suggest black and Hispanic Americans are more vulnerable to COVID-19, because of unequal access to health care and other factors. Yet the poll found just 25% of African Americans and 37% of Hispanics would get a vaccine compared to 56% of whites.An AP-NORC poll released Wednesday showed roughly half of Americans are willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine, with another 31% saying they aren’t sure if they will take a COVID-19 vaccine. Another 20% said they’d refuse a vaccine when it is done.

“I would hope they would change their minds and be willing,” Klimstra said. “It’s a critical issue both for themselves and for other people. Really that comes down to the issues with wearing masks in this circumstance. When you’re wearing a mask the biggest effect you’re having is on your transmitting the virus to somebody else. It’s taking a protective attitude and a positive community attitude. The same thing with taking the vaccine. Yes, you will be protecting yourself but you also won’t be transmitting the virus to anybody else. Again, these vaccines will be safe. I can guarantee that. Given the technologies that are being utilized, they will be safe.”

Klimstra said changing the attitudes reflected in the polling data is another battle to be fought between now and the end of the year.

“It’s a difficult situation,” he said. “We’re in an environment right now where longstanding accepted truths are being challenged through social media and other things. It’s very difficult to fight that kind of stuff. I’ve read a lot of the anti-vaccine literature and things that are on the Internet and people seem to feel that ‘Big Pharma’ is promoting these things and then scientists, because they get grants, have been compromised to ‘Big Pharma.’ But what I would say directly is I advocate vaccines. They are clearly shown to be safe in multiple studies. … You have to accept when you have essentially universal consensus among people who should know about something that, in this case, vaccines are safe. I’m not saying there aren’t occasionally adverse reactions to vaccines. Every medical procedure that people take has some risk associated with it. It’s just vanishingly small with vaccines and the link to autism are just not held up by science.”

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