Collaboration Spurs Creative Search for COVID-19 Vaccine

Scientist hope to harness measles vaccine to speed the fight against pandemic

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From the other side of the Zoom screen, a modest gentleman in a bright pink tie points out his eclectic office to me and other guests invited by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh to hear him. Its sleek modern design brims with saturated colors and neon furniture. “Look at my place. I made it a bit brighter. There’s just something so amazing about color, and about diversity and difference.”

The man is not an artist or a musician, but rather a different type of creative thinker — a virologist. W. Paul Duprex, Ph.D., the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk Chair for Vaccine Research, is one of the world’s top scientists, and he is racing to create a coronavirus vaccine. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, he grew up in a deeply divided society, causing him to appreciate and value diversity, collaboration, and creativity, which guide his vibrant scientific philosophy to this day.

Illustration By Akshay Amesur — The surfaces of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are covered in specifically shaped proteins (represented here as rod-like heads). These proteins allow the virus to attach to and infect host cells.

At a time when a global pandemic caused by a never-before-seen coronavirus has claimed thousands of lives and brought the economies of nations to a shocking halt, Duprex and his team of scientists are working tirelessly for the public good. Using their earlier work on another virus, they are researching, collaborating, and checking results in the quest for a vaccine that could save the lives by immunizing people against the virus that causes COVID-19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Duprex and his team were in the midst of creating a vaccine for the Rift Valley Fever Virus, using the measles vaccine, which has safely treated billions.

Basically, Duprex’s group was attempting to harness the measles vaccine as what he compares to a “stage,” upon which new actors — in this case the surface proteins of the Rift Valley Fever Virus — could appear. These surface proteins are what allow the virus to attach to and infect a host cell. Their “show,” in effect, teaches the “audience,” the immune system, how to react to the virus. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the “actors” of the Rift Valley Fever Virus were quickly replaced with those of SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. This rapid pivot from a Rift Valley Fever vaccine to one for SARS-CoV-2 allowed the scientists to quickly begin making a new vaccine for COVID-19 without wasting precious time.

Duprex and his team dove into collaboration with colleagues around the world, pursuing new methods of vaccine delivery such as aerosols, like nasal sprays, and microneedle arrays, which would be applied like Band-Aids, to best deliver the vaccine.

The potential vaccine being created by Duprex’s team at the University of Pittsburgh isn’t the only one. Worldwide, there are now close to 200 COVID-19 vaccine candidates. According to Duprex, it is estimated that one of them will be approved and ready for mass distribution between December 2020 and July of 2021. Though this may seem like a long time, it is the fastest pace this process has ever seen.

Duprex explains that “vaccines are products,” products, which may be given to hundreds of millions, or even billions, of people. But before this can be done, scientists must be certain that they will not cause adverse reactions in any portion of the population. No matter how quickly they can be created, all potential vaccines must pass rigorous tests to ensure that they are safe and effective.

If Duprex’s vaccine is successful, his team is well positioned to begin mass production. A major benefit of using the measles vaccine as a platform to inoculate against COVID-19 is that “since it has been successfully made and used for a long time, it’s easy to get the ‘stage’ part ready,” he says. This part part of the process has already begun. Duprex’s team in Pittsburgh is partnering with the Serum Institute of India (SII), which has vaccinated 65 percent of the world’s children. After receiving the carefully crafted vaccine-candidate samples, the SII has made what is known as a “seed stock,” a preliminary batch of the vaccine. If the vaccine is safe and effective, then the SII can begin rapid production of up to 600 million doses a year in their facilities alone.

A vaccine for COVID-19 is not the only thing scientists like Duprex are working on to help end the pandemic. They must also advance diagnostics (ways to detect the virus) and therapeutics (ways to treat the virus once it has already infected someone). As director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research (CVR), Duprex helps spearhead these efforts.

He explains that he and his team “like to think of CVR as a three-legged stool.” As he sees it, forms of treatments, like vaccines, are one leg, discovering new viruses is another, and understanding infectious disease is the third. “A stool can’t stand without all three legs.”

The SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered in December of 2019, emerging from animals and jumping to humans. Understanding and interventions weren’t far behind. Not long after that, in February, the CVR validated University of Pittsburgh faculty member Dr. Alan Wells’ COVID-19 test, while CVR member Dr. John Williams demystified cases of community spread.

Now, the CVR’s Dr. William Klimstra is working with SAb Biotherapeutics, based in South Dakota, to create antibodies that can both help prevent against, but also treat people already infected with, COVID-19. All of this is being done using cows that SAb Biotherapeutics has genetically modified in a way that allows them to create human targeted neutralizing antibodies said Duprex. Researchers hope these targeted neutralising antibodies can help slow the progression of the coronavirus in an infected person and prevent infection for those who have not yet been exposed.

Illustration by Akshay Amesur — The SAb Biotherapeutics cows are genetically modified to produced human antibodies against COVID-19 when exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 Virus.

When exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, these cows are able to produce large amounts of antibodies to fight the disease, which could help protect humans from COVID-19 and treat those who have been infected. But first, researchers must ensure that these antibodies actually work in humans and don’t have severe side effects. If the CVR finds, through detailed monitoring of key health markers, that the antibodies truly help against the disease in cows, the company aims to begin human trials this summer.

With recent data regarding the longevity of natural antibodies, that shows that the antibodies’ effects may not be permanent, Duprex asserts that booster shots of the vaccine will likely be needed, perhaps annually. He calls the diagnostic and therapeutic measures “stopgaps that can be implemented before we have a safe and effective vaccine that’s ready for global distribution.”

Duprex and his colleagues have undertaken this research in the historic footsteps of the University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Jonas Salk, the legendary creator of the first polio vaccine. Salk’s achievements in the 1950s were part of what drew Duprex to Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh does vaccines,” he says, but now “the types of vaccines that we can make are things that Salk would only have been able to dream of.”

Since Salk’s advancements in the 1950s, the face of science has unrecognizably changed. “Now,” as Duprex remarks, “we can bring together an arsenal of biotechnology.” Duprex intends to use that arsenal for the good of all, not just those who can afford it. His passion is palpable as he voices his belief that in vaccination, “No one should be disadvantaged. No one should have unequal access.”

He foresees who “being able to ship and store [temperature-stable] vaccines without reliance on refrigeration could vastly increase vaccination in the developing world” to protect the vulnerable, and with them, the “richness of humanity.” Duprex and his colleagues in Pittsburgh continue their quest within the brightly painted rooms of the CVR, they utilize our shared differences and common sources of divergent inspiration to make the world a safer and brighter place.


“Race to a Vaccine + a Commitment to Equity in Health During a Global Pandemic,” which highlighted W. Paul Duprex, Ph.D. and the Center for Vaccine Researchs’ work, was made possible by a collaboration between nonprofit World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and The University of Pittsburgh.

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