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UPMC creates potential vaccine for COVID-19

The development of a potential vaccine against the new coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic was revealed Thursday by doctors at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC.

The announcement was made during a joint online news conference with the university and UPMC in Pittsburgh. Co-senior authors of a the research Dr. Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery at Pitt’s school of medicine and Dr. Louis Falo, professor and chair of dermatology at the school of medicine and UPMC, and also Dr. Donald Yealy, department of emergency medicine at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh attended the news conference to field questions about the potential vaccine.

The vaccine, if approved, would be delivered by a novel technology, a dissolvable microneedle array.

“Our lab developed this microneedle array approach. It is a band-aid like patch that has hundreds of microscopic needles made up of a sugar-like substance that rapidly dissolves in the body,” Falo said. “The vaccine is integrated into the needles that when pressed onto the skin the needles penetrate the outer skin layer and dissolve and release the vaccine.”

He explained that the skin is the body’s first line of defense against viruses, bacteria and other harmful invaders.

“Because of that, it has evolved to be very efficient at mounting immune responses, which means less vaccine is needed compared to a traditional shot,” Falo said.

The process for making the vaccine does not require complex or expensive equipment and because of that, Falo pointed out that large amounts could easily be manufactured. The vaccine also, unlike many current vaccines, does not need to be kept frozen or refrigerated. This makes the vaccine shelf stable at room temperature, which would reduce shipping costs, particularly to less developed countries.

The next step, the doctors said, is to get approval from government agencies to begin clinical trials on humans.

“We are currently in contact with the FDA. This process normally takes months to years, but these pandemic conditions are not normal,” Falo said.

He noted that the National Institute of Health and other regulatory agencies have made progress in accelerating the process.

“Once we get approval from the FDA, we will be ready to start human safety trials,” Falo said. He could not give a definite timeline for how long the safety trials would take before the vaccine was approved for use.

The findings of the research were published in EBioMedicine and is the first study to be published after critique from fellow scientists at outside institutions that describes a candidate vaccine for COVID-19.

Gambotto explained how they were able to reach this point so quickly.

“We had previous experience on SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014,” Gambotto said, noting that those two viruses are genetically similar to the coronavirus causing the current pandemic.

“When the genetic sequence for SARS coronavirus 2 was published in late January, we were able to plug into our existing tool and rapidly produce a vaccine,” Gambotto said. “We knew exactly where to fight this new virus.”

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

When asked about the potential for the reactions that some people experience after getting vaccinated against the seasonal flu, Falo said that the new vaccine delivers a much lower dose of antigens than the traditional flu vaccines. It also delivers the vaccine to a more confined space on the skin.

“It’s very unlikely that we would see any type of systemic responses that have been seen with some patients in the flu vaccine,” Falo said.

He added that the vaccine should be effective across all age groups.

If the clinical trials prove that the vaccine is effective in treating COVID-19, Falo assured the group that it would be available broadly so there would be no need to ration.

“I would expect that the manufacturing scale-up would occur during the testing process so that plenty of the vaccine would be available if it proved effective,” he said.

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