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Health, Science, Environment

St. Louis Scientists Want High-Risk Patients To Test Coronavirus Vaccine

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Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
Scientists in St. Louis plan to recruit thousands of local patients to participate in large-scale studies that test the safety and effectiveness of different coronavirus vaccines. To find the most accurate results, patients with high-risk health conditions and essential jobs must enroll in the trials.

Researchers at St. Louis University and Washington University are looking for hundreds of people at high risk of getting sick with the coronavirus to test potential vaccines.

The two universities are part of a government-funded effort to test several vaccines that have are being developed by the country’s pharmaceutical giants. The testing sites are in charge of enrolling tens of thousands of clinical trial participants nationwide to test fast-tracked vaccines made under the federal Operation Warp Speed program.

Scientists can’t ethically make the study participants contract the coronavirus. Instead, they have to wait for people enrolled in the trial to get infected to show which vaccines work safely and prevent people from getting sick.

The more people get sick, the faster they’ll know the results of the clinical trials, said Dr. Daniel Hoft, director of SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development.

“We’re trying to get subjects in the trial that have greater risks of either getting infected … or once infected have a higher risk of progressing to severe disease,” Hoft said. “Because if you don’t have people at risk, you can’t ask questions in a trial that’s going on for two years whether or not the vaccine works better than a placebo. You have to bring people at risk.”

SLU and Wash U researchers are looking for people who work in essential jobs that put them in contact with the public often, said Dr. Rachel Presti, medical director of Wash U’s Infectious Disease Clinical Research Unit.

“What we’re really trying to do is make sure we’re going to get good representation of the whole community,” Presti said. “Clearly people who are in essential jobs who have a lot of contact with people are at risk.”

The people who often want to enroll in clinical trials aren’t necessarily the same people the studies need, she said, noting Wash U scientists are working on community outreach to find people to enroll in the studies.

SLU researchers just finished enrolling participants for a coronavirus vaccine from the drug manufacturer Moderna. Scientists there expect to begin enrolling for trials for other drug companies soon.

Wash U started its enrollment for participants in Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial last week and is already inoculating participants with the vaccine and placebos.

While some Phase 3 clinical trials can take years to complete, researchers expect to see results of the studies within months, thanks to the large numbers of people enrolled in the trials and the rate of coronavirus spread through the community, Hoft said. Nearly 30,000 people across the country are enrolled in the Moderna study.

Even though the vaccine trials could show results by early next year, it’s unlikely the general public will be able to get a vaccine before the end of 2021, Presti said. A clinical trial is a chance for people to receive an effective vaccine before anyone else.

“If you enrolled in a study in December, you’re still likely to get a vaccine faster than if you would through standard [procedures],” she said. “I’ve had people who are like, ‘Oh, it’s placebo-controlled, you only have a 50-50 percent chance.’ That’s more than a zero percent chance of you getting the vaccine without enrolling in the study.”

People who are interested in participating in a clinical trial can visit SLU or Wash U’s websites.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

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