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Wash U Scientists Are Developing A Coronavirus Vaccine

Postdoctoral researchers Adam Bailey and Brett Case work on a vaccine to prevent the disease caused by the new coronavirus in a laboratory at the Washington University Medical Campus in March 2020.
Matt Miller | Washington University School of Medicine
Postdoctoral researchers Adam Bailey and Brett Case work on a vaccine to prevent the disease caused by the new coronavirus in a laboratory at the Washington University Medical Campus.

As the number of COVID-19 cases climbs in the U.S., scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine are working on a vaccine to prevent the disease. 

Researchers are using a virus that’s harmless to humans and replacing a protein on its surface with one from the coronavirus that spreads the COVID-19 disease. That strategy could generate antibodies in the immune system that would attack the virus, said Sean Whelan, head of Wash U’s Department of Molecular Microbiology.

People in 18 states have tested positive for the new coronavirus, and 12 have died from the COVID-19 disease. Vaccines often take months to develop due to the time it takes to obtain federal approval for human trials. 

“I’m hoping this will turn out to be faster than what has historically been possible,” said Whelan, who leads the research. “But making a prediction about how long it will take is really quite challenging.” 

A vaccine to fight the new coronavirus needs to display the “spike” protein, said Sarah George, an infectious diseases professor at St. Louis University. The virus uses that protein to invade human cells. 

“If we can elicit the immune system in people to make neutralizing antibodies to that spike protein, then there's a good chance that that would be protective,” George said.

Dr. Steven Lawrence, an infectious disease specialist at Wash U, and Sean Whelan, the head of the molecular microbiology department at Wash U answered questions about the new coronavirus on St. Louis On The Air on March 5, 2020.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Steven Lawrence, an infectious disease specialist at Wash U, and Sean Whelan, the head of the molecular microbiology department at Wash U, answered questions about the new coronavirus on St. Louis On The Air.

Whelan’s laboratory is using vesicular stomatitis, a virus that infects livestock, to develop a vaccine candidate. The approach is similar to how Canadian scientists and pharmaceutical company Merck created a vaccine for the Ebola virus. 

Another Wash U researcher, David Curiel, is working on a vaccine for COVID-19 that uses a harmless cold virus. 

Having a vaccine is more useful than drugs to treat infected patients, said Dr. Steven Lawrence, an infectious disease specialist at Wash U’s School of Medicine. 

“Even if a good treatment exists, it will reduce illness but it won’t eliminate it, whereas a vaccine would,” Lawrence said. “So Dr. Whelan’s work is more important than antivirals.”

Wash U’s research is funded by the university and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Several pharmaceutical companies are working on vaccines to prevent the new coronavirus. Moderna Therapeutics recently identified a candidate only 42 days after the virus’ genome was sequenced. The company is working with the National Institutes of Health to test the vaccine on healthy volunteers next month.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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

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