BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The University of Alabama Birmingham remains engaged in the worldwide quest to find a vaccine for COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic UAB raised 1.1 million dollars from businesses to fund clinical and basic research grants solely focused on COVID-19. They awarded that money to 14 research projects studying everything from infrastructure and therapeutics to vaccines.
“My lab and a number of other labs as UAB are working on a vaccine that was developed by a company called Altimmune,” says Dr. Fran Lund, Chair of Microbiology at UAB.
Maryland-based Altimmune announced in March its collaboration with the UAB to develop a single dose intranasal COVID-19 vaccine called AdCOVID.
Dr. Lund said, “In general, people that are infected with coronaviruses breathe it in through their nose or through their mouth first. So the places that get infected first are the respiratory tract or the upper respiratory tract. So if you put the vaccine where the virus is going to be and you get a good immune response at that site, you get what’s called local immunity.”
Her team is doing pre-clinical testing on the vaccine with mice. They are looking for whether the animals develop antibodies that are specific to the vaccine and whether those antibodies are specific to coronavirus proteins that are in the vaccine.
Dr. Lund says, “If they do develop antibodies those antibodies prevent infection with the virus.”
It’s estimated there are more than 100 potential COVID-19 vaccines being worked on right now. Scientists are using genetic code instead of the protein to try to develop these vaccines. “So what they are doing is actually giving genetic information so RNA into the vaccine, and that allows for them to ramp up the production much faster than making a bunch of protein that you have to package in the vaccine and deliver to people. It’s allowing it go faster.”
Dr. Lund says assuming half of the 100 or so vaccines being worked on right now made it into clinical trials in humans, resulting in perhaps four or five top contenders.
“If it all comes together the way it should and we have a vaccine that actually works, then I think it’s not unreasonable to say we could have a vaccine in a year.”
If AdCOVID makes it to that stage Lund sees some advantages because of its stability.
“It doesn’t have to be refrigerated and also can be self-administered because it is a nasal vaccine. So you can spray it yourself into your nose which means that you don’t need have to have a trained person or nurse for example to administer the vaccine in a shot.”
But the big question according to Lund is whether or not this is a virus that will actually respond to a vaccine.
Researchers at UAB have a long history of studying and developing vaccines through the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at UAB. So when the novel coronavirus 2019 emerged it came as little surprise to people in the Birmingham area that UAB would emerge as a key player.
In April the University announced its role in the clinical trials for the Gilead Sciences drug Remdesivir. The drug is the only treatment so far that has been shown to have a positive effect on COVID-19. It shortens the duration of the virus in hospitalized patients who receive it intravenously by as many as four days. It is now available in countries around the world as a treatment for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. But UAB is still studying the drug in additional phases.
Dr. Nathan Erdmann, who enrolled patients in the clinical trials at UAB, said researchers will “have the opportunity to identify people that are likely to benefit from the drug, give them Remdesivir as a baseline, and then add in agents so that we can try to optimize treatment.”
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