The race for a coronavirus vaccine has become the Manhattan Project of our generation. Instead of our finest scientists working to develop the first atomic weapon to end World War II, we are racing to develop a defense against COVID-19’s assault on humanity. A vaccine or effective therapy will be necessary for our lives to return to a sense of normalcy. San Antonio institutions are on the front line of this effort.
“We are working very fast to attack this problem because until we have a vaccine and a therapy, this virus represents a huge threat to humanity,” said Dr. Robert Hromas, dean at the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.
UT Health San Antonio researchers are teaming with Texas Biomedical Research Institute scientists at biosafety level 3 and 4 labs at the institute. These labs allow scientists to work with the live virus. The Texas Biomedical Research Institute, located in Northwest San Antonio, recently raised $3.5 million from local institutions, including H-E-B, USAA and the McCombs Foundation, to help fund a team of 40 local scientists conducting COVID-19 research.
“This is another example of the outstanding partnership between our institutions,” said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, president and CEO of Texas Biomed.
Collaboration among biomedical and research institutions in San Antonio has been a bioscience industry priority for years. This coordination puts community researchers and institutions in a position to have a profound impact on vaccine and therapy development.
The current research project focuses on antibodies as a key to vaccine development. “People who had the infection and recovered from it make specific antibodies,” said Dr. Evelien Bunnik from the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics at UT Health San Antonio. “Once we know the footprints of the antibodies that give the best inhibitory effect, we can take that footprint, essentially, and make it into a vaccine.”
Expectations about the speed and efficacy of a coronavirus vaccine need to be managed. Vaccine development usually takes 10 to 15 years. Even an accelerated process will take a year at the least, with some experts warning an 18-month timeline is overly optimistic. Coronavirus research must also remain focused on treatments and therapies.
San Antonio institutions are searching for effective coronavirus treatments, which fall into two broad categories: antiviral and antibody therapies.
Antibodies will hopefully create a scientific road map to a vaccine, but they will also provide treatment immediately to critically ill patients. A patient who has recovered from coronavirus can donate plasma that contains antibodies with a proven ability to effectively fight the virus. The plasma is then injected into a critically ill patient. This method was used to great effect during the Ebola outbreak.
Plasma infusions to treat coronavirus are already occurring in San Antonio hospitals. The Food and Drug Administration recently allowed blood banks to broaden and accelerate collection and distribution of plasma. The South Texas Blood and Tissue Center immediately started collecting plasma from those who have recovered from the coronavirus and is delivering the plasma to local hospitals.
The San Antonio medical community is also actively participating in research on antiviral therapies. Antiviral drugs essentially prevent viruses from replicating and are currently used to prevent the spread of HIV. Remdesivir, developed by Gilead Sciences, is undergoing a massive international trial sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. University Hospital and Brooke Army Medical Center are two of 75 international sites participating in the clinical trial.
The mobilization of partners from UT Health San Antonio and University Health System led to an “incredibly fast activation” of the trial in San Antonio, according to local study lead Dr. Thomas Patterson, chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at UT Health San Antonio. The first patient was enrolled at University Hospital in March.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a 2014 interview in the Journal of Clinical Investigation that the success of HIV antiviral treatments — which prolonged the median survival timeline of HIV-positive patients from six months to 50 years without a vaccine — is “one of the most extraordinary success stories in the history of medicine.”
We will beat COVID-19, whether through a vaccine or treatment. San Antonio will play a huge role in this effort and success.
T.J. Mayes is a San Antonio-based attorney, community volunteer and host of KLRN’s “On the Record.”