Scientists in Pittsburgh have created a potential vaccine that could completely neutralize SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
A group of researchers from UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine calls the vaccine PittCoVacc, short for Pittsburgh Coronavirus Vaccine. When tested in mice, the vaccine produces antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2 in quantities thought to neutralize the virus.
UPMC and Pitt scientists seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin human clinical trials of the drug.
If successful, it wouldn’t be the first time Pittsburgh led the charge to end the spread of a major disease. The late Jonas Salk, MD, developed one of the world’s first successful polio vaccines in 1955 during his professorship at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
The UPMC and Pitt research team were able to act quickly to create PittCoVacc because they laid the groundwork during earlier coronavirus epidemics, such as SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014.
“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,” says Louis Falo, MD, chair, Department of Dermatology, Pitt and UPMC, who helped spearhead PittCoVacc.
PittCoVacc offers a new approach to delivering vaccines, called a microneedle array, to increase its potency. This array is a fingertip-sized patch of 400 tiny needles that deliver spike protein pieces into the skin, where the immune reaction is the strongest.
The patch goes on like a Band-Aid, and the needles, which are made entirely of sugar and protein pieces, simply dissolve into the skin.
A paper on the drug appeared in EBioMedicine, which is published by the Lancet. It was the first study on a potential COVID-19 vaccine to be published after a critique from scientists from outside institutions.
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The Fight for a Vaccine
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than a million deaths worldwide since its discovery in late 2019. Scientists are working to develop a vaccine that can be distributed widely to prevent the disease.
While vaccines often take many years to develop, a government initiative in the U.S. known as Operation Warp Speed aims to produce and distribute a vaccine with 300 million doses, the first of which could be available in early 2021.
As a result, UPMC established the Pittsburgh Vaccine Trials Unit to help test COVID-19 vaccine candidates. UPMC has enrolled participants in human trials of drugs developed by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health.
PittCoVacc is not among the vaccines being tested in this project at this time.
Learn more about UPMC’s role in Operation Warp Speed.
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Breakthroughs in COVID-19 Treatment
The fight against COVID-19 goes beyond the search for a vaccine.
UPMC and Pitt scientists have developed a medication called Ab8 that potentially can treat and prevent COVID-19.
Ab8 is not a vaccine, but an antibody therapy that has been effective in treating COVID-19 in mice and hamsters. The drug contains tiny antibody components that neutralize SARS-CoV-2 in these animals.
Unlike vaccines, antibody therapies can be used to treat people who are already sick. Antibodies also may help people who cannot get vaccinated or whose immune systems don’t have strong response to vaccines, such as older adults or people with compromised immune systems.
Scientists are seeking FDA approval to proceed with human clinical trials of Ab8.
“This is extraordinary and highly promising work,” says Steven Shapiro, MD, chief medical and scientific officer, UPMC.
“And it could lead to a drug that both treats and prevents COVID-19, and one that we hope will prove extremely safe and easy to administer.”
A $21 billion health care provider and insurer, Pittsburgh-based UPMC is inventing new models of patient-centered, cost-effective, accountable care. The largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania, UPMC integrates more than 90,000 employees, 40 hospitals, 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient sites, and a 3.8 million-member Insurance Services Division, the largest medical insurer in western Pennsylvania. In the most recent fiscal year, UPMC contributed $1.4 billion in benefits to its communities, including more care to the region’s most vulnerable citizens than any other health care institution, and paid more than $500 million in federal, state, and local taxes. Working in close collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, UPMC shares its clinical, managerial, and technological skills worldwide through its innovation and commercialization arm, UPMC Enterprises, and through UPMC International. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside on its annual Honor Roll of America’s Best Hospitals and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. For more information, go to UPMC.com.