Covid-19 Vaccine Candidate Shows Promise in Early Research

(CN) — Researchers developing a vaccine against the MERS coronavirus at the University of Pittsburgh announced Thursday that the same process may help rapidly develop treatment for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Best of all, delivery doesn’t require a shot.

The researchers dubbed their work the PittCoVacc, short for Pittsburgh Coronavirus Vaccine, according to a press release from the university.

The vaccine is delivered into the skin through a fingertip-sized patch of microscopic needles. (Photo courtesy of UPMC)

Coronaviruses pose a clear threat to human health and wellbeing around the world, from the SARS epidemic in the 2000s to Covid-19, which has spread to at least 981,221 people globally as of April 1 and caused at least 50,230 deaths.

“Driven by the urgent need for Covid-19 vaccines, we utilized this strategy to rapidly develop microneedle array SARS-CoV-2 subunit vaccines,” the team of researchers explained in the paper.

Dissolvable fingertip-sized patches of microneedle arrays inject medicine under the skin with 400 microscopic sugar spikes. The method appears more effective than hypodermic needles in lab tests on mice and is easily scaled.

In their paper published in the journal EBioMedicine, the researchers showed how the same methods used to develop vaccines against MERS can be used to develop a response to immunize people from Covid-19.

“We knew exactly where to fight this new virus,” said co-senior author Dr. Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine in a statement.

“We had previous experience on SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014. These two viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, teach us that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus,” Gambotto added. “That’s why it’s important to fund vaccine research. You never know where the next pandemic will come from.”

Within three weeks of learning the glycoprotein sequence for SARS-CoV-2, researchers were able to develop CoV-S1fRS09 immunogens and prepare dissolvable microneedle arrays for delivery. Initial tests on mice indicate the subunit vaccine produces antibodies specific to the virus within two weeks.

Researchers are unable to say when a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine could be ready for human use, but they are moving forward. According to a press release from the university, the authors are requesting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin “phase I human clinical trial in the next few months.”

“Testing in patients would typically require at least a year and probably longer,” said co-senior author Dr. Louis Falo, professor and chair of dermatology at Pitt’s School of Medicine. “This particular situation is different from anything we’ve ever seen, so we don’t know how long the clinical development process will take. Recently announced revisions to the normal processes suggest we may be able to advance this faster.”

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