Experimental COVID-19 Vaccine Shows Promise in Producing Antibodies


An experimental COVID-19 vaccine is showing promise in animal testing. A University of Pittsburgh-developed vaccine is producing antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2 at quantities thought to be sufficient for neutralizing the virus.

When tested in mice, the vaccine, which is delivered through a fingertip-sized patch, produced the antibodies specific to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The researchers had already worked on vaccine development for SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014, both viruses from the same family that causes COVID-19. That allowed them to quickly develop the vaccine candidates. In that previous research, the scientists learned that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus.

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

When tested in mice, the experimental vaccine generated a surge of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 within two weeks. While there is no long-term data, the researchers noted that the Mice who received their previous MERS-CoV vaccine produced a sufficient level of antibodies to neutralize the virus for at least a year. The COVID-19 vaccine is following the same trend, the researchers said.

University researchers reported their results in EBioMedicine, which is published by The Lancet. This is the first study to be published following review by scientists from outside institutions that describes a candidate vaccine for COVID-19, the university announced.

Unlike mRNA vaccines being developed by companies like Moderna and BioNTech, the University of Pittsburgh vaccine, called PittCoVacc, which is short for Pittsburgh Coronavirus Vaccine, uses lab-made pieces of viral protein to build immunity, similar to the way traditional flu vaccines are developed, the university said. Additionally, the University of Pittsburgh noted that its researchers used a novel approach called a microneedle array as a more potent delivery system. This array is a fingertip-sized patch of 400 tiny needles that delivers the spike protein pieces into the skin, where the immune reaction is strongest. The patch is placed on the skin like a bandage, then the needles, made from sugar and the protein pieces, dissolve into the skin.

Louis Falo, the chair of dermatology at the medical school and a co-author on the paper said the ability to develop the vaccine candidate was due to scientists from different areas of expertise working together toward a common goal.

“We developed this to build on the original scratch method used to deliver the smallpox vaccine to the skin, but as a high-tech version that is more efficient and reproducible patient to patient,” Falo said in a statement. "And it's actually pretty painless -- it feels kind of like Velcro.”

The next step for the research team is to apply for an Investigational New Drug Application from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order to move it into human trials. With many medications on the fast track against the pandemic, Falo said he believes the team may be able to advance this vaccine candidate within a few months.

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