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University of Pittsburgh Part of International Consortium Working to Develop COVID-19 Vaccine

March 27, 2020

The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) is one of three institutions who have received a $4.9 million grant to develop a COVID-19 vaccine based on measles-vector technology.

The Coalition for Epidemics Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) announced that the University of Pittsburgh, Themis Bioscience in Austria, and Institut Pasteur in France will be receiving the grant in an effort to more rapidly develop a vaccine.

The University of Pittsburgh has proven its ability to address national health emergencies since the start of its virus program with Jonas Salk in 1947. Years of research and testing led to the first killed-virus vaccine for polio, changing the lives of millions across the world.

“You have to be the right laboratory who can handle the virus in the right way with the right expertise to safely, carefully, methodically, and rigorously understand the disease,” said CVR director and Jonas Salk Chair for Vaccine Research Paul Duprex, PhD. “All of our efforts will be directed to address this rapidly changing public health emergency. We are delighted to be part of this multinational, world-class consortium.”

Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research was one of the first research labs to receive a sample of the coronavirus in February and Dr. Duprex is one of the leading experts on the measles virus – allowing Pitt to rapidly respond to this global pandemic. This will be done through developing animal models of the disease and testing the efficacy of candidate vaccines such as recombinant measles viruses with a range of SARS-CoV-2 genes.

“There are virologists all around the world who have been trained for this moment,” Dr. Duprex said. “We have colleagues in many parts of the world who collaborate and work with us to share information and share knowledge because this is important.”

Researchers at all three institutions are already working on the creation of the new measles vector vaccine – a well-established process. Chikungunya, dengue, Ebola, HIV-1, Lassa, MERS, RSV, SARS, West Nile, and Zika also have experimental measles vector vaccines.

The team hopes to have a candidate vaccine ready for animal testing in both Paris and Pittsburgh by April, complemented by the development of an aerosol model of COVID-19. Approximately 60 to 80 human volunteers will have received the vaccine by the end of the year at two sites in Europe. While that is happening, Themis will be stockpiling the candidate vaccine, anticipating a phase II trial to start in early 2021.

“It is clear that an effective vaccine against COVID-19 is crucial if we are to beat this virus,” said Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI. “By investing in a range of partners and vaccine technologies, we are giving ourselves the best chance of developing a vaccine that can stop COVID-19 in its tracks.”