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St. Louis Researchers To Test Coronavirus Vaccines In Humans

A scanning electron microscope image of the coronavirus, shown in orange. Researchers in St. Louis plan to recruit 3,000 people to test potential coronavirus vaccines.
A scanning electron microscope image of the coronavirus, shown in orange. Researchers in St. Louis plan to recruit 3,000 people to test potential coronavirus vaccines.

Washington University and St. Louis University will soon begin a series of clinical trials to test potential vaccines in humans. 

The universities plan to recruit thousands of people in the St. Louis region to test whether these vaccines provide protection against the coronavirus.

The scale and urgency of the pandemic has made collaboration across institutions essential, said Rachel Presti, director of Washington University’s Infectious Disease Clinical Research Unit.

“This pandemic is affecting every part of people’s lives: their jobs, their health and their enjoyment of life,” Presti said. “If we have a vaccine that protects people from getting sick, we can start to get our lives back.”

Researchers at the two universities will run at least five different vaccine studies over the next six months as part of the COVID-19 Prevention Network, a collaboration formed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The group hopes to enroll about 3,000 people from the greater St. Louis area to participate.

Once enrolled, study participants will receive either the vaccine or a placebo shot — without knowing which one they got. The team will then closely monitor all participants to determine which patients naturally contract the coronavirus and how sick they become.

Patients will not be deliberately exposed to the virus through the study, said Sharon Frey, clinical director of SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development. 

“We want people to continue to protect themselves from becoming infected, because we don't know if these vaccines work,” Frey said. “That’s why we’re testing them.”

The two universities are waiting for final approval from the National Institutes of Health before releasing details about the studies, including which vaccines will be tested. 

All potential vaccines included in the studies, however, have moved through Phase I and II clinical testing — meaning that they have been tested in hundreds of people to determine the appropriate dosage and identify possible side effects.

There are roughly two dozen potential coronavirus vaccines that are now being tested in humans.

Several are slated to move into large-scale Phase III clinical testing at the end of July, including one vaccine produced by the American biotechnology company Moderna and another from German company BioNTech.

Still, it will likely be at least six months before scientists know whether these early vaccines can protect people from contracting the coronavirus, Presti said.

“We want to do this as quickly as possible, but also as safely as possible,” she said. “And that’s going to require huge amounts of collaboration and cooperation.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.