Pivot to a pandemic

UVA turns its expertise to the fight against COVID-19

image of healthcare workers(Published winter 2020)

Nearly a year into a global pandemic that has led to more than 1 million deaths, infected tens of millions more and upended daily life around the world, the scientific community is attempting to do the seemingly impossible: conquer a deadly virus not in years, but in months. In the race to achieve such an unprecedented victory, researchers across Grounds joined the effort—even as the world plunged abruptly into a new reality of shutdowns and social distancing—bringing their expertise together to understand the virus and prevent and treat infection.

Dr. Craig Kent, executive vice president for health affairs for UVA Health, says that UVA’s research community brings two particular strengths to this fight. The first is nationally recognized expertise in infectious diseases and epidemiology. And the second is a dedication to collaboration that UVA and its research community made a priority well before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I have never seen the level of collaboration I have experienced here at UVA,” Kent says. “Everybody is at the table, and everybody is working together.”

“When you see something that threatens humanity,” says Dr. Steven Zeichner “you are almost beholden to take a deep breath and jump in and see if you can help out.”

As early hope of containing COVID-19 outbreaks faded, focus turned to a vaccine as the path to gaining control over the pandemic. And although a handful of front-runners quickly moved into advanced clinical trials in the U.S. and elsewhere, it’s unlikely that any will prove a “magic bullet” for rapidly combating the virus. UVA researchers have several projects in early development.

To address a growing concern about waning COVID-19 immunity, professor of surgery Dr. Craig Slingluff and his team are developing a vaccine with a “prime-and-boost” approach, likely with two different shots that would be administered several weeks apart. “Some of the emerging evidence suggests that immunity against the coronavirus is not as strong or long-lasting as we would like,” Slingluff says. “So what we anticipate is that there will be subsets of people who get the first vaccine who don’t get a very good immune response and aren’t protected, and that others may get an immune response but it wears off over time. We hope that this approach will create a stronger, more durable response.”

Similarly, a vaccine collaboration led by the School of Medicine’s Dr. Bill Petri and Dr. Peter Kasson is pursuing sustained immunity with an intranasal vaccine that would target the first site of infection and include an added ingredient to stimulate a stronger immune response.

Professor of pediatrics Dr. Steven Zeichner’s team began their vaccine project with the end in mind, recognizing that a truly successful vaccine for a global pandemic will have to be rapidly producible using existing industrial capacity, affordable for the world’s poorest nations and easily administered in countries that lack advanced health infrastructures. Their preliminary research is focusing on developing a vaccine that comes from a part of the virus that appears stable across the different variants that have been sequenced and would provoke an effective immune response without precipitating a more intense inflammatory reaction. And “because the vaccine production technology would involve growing E. coli bacteria and then inactivating them,” Zeichner explains, “the vaccine should be able to be produced in large quantities for a low price using existing technologies and factories around the world that are used to make other vaccines.”
Read more in the University of Virginia alumni magazine (link) or view the PDF.

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