University of Pittsburgh: We might already have a vaccine -- and a safer delivery method, too

Take this with a small grain of salt at least for the moment, or perhaps a grain of sugar in this case. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine believe that they have found an effective vaccine against COVID-19 and want expedited FDA approval for Phase 1 testing. The school’s extensive work on the previous SARS and MERS outbreaks left a roadmap for defeating this coronavirus, they claim in a new peer-reviewed paper — and they have also developed a safer method for delivering it:


Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine believe that they’ve found a potential vaccine for the new coronavirus.

The researchers announced their findings Thursday and believe the vaccine could be rolled out quickly enough to “significantly impact the spread of disease,” according to their study published in EBioMedicine. …

The scientists say they were able to act fast because they had already done research on the similar coronaviruses SARS and MERS.

“These two viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, teach us that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus,” read a statement from co-senior author Andrea Gambotto, M.D., associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine.

Fox News picked up the news this morning after word started to spread last night:

With funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases and the National Cancer Institute, university scientists developed a candidate vaccine to fight against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The team’s findings were reported Thursday in eBioMedicine, which is published by The Lancet.

The study is the first “to be published after critique from fellow scientists at outside institutions that describes a candidate vaccine for COVID-19,” according to a news release, which added: “The researchers were able to act quickly because they had already laid the groundwork during earlier coronavirus epidemics.”


The grain of salt comes from the stage for this research. At the moment, all they have done with the vaccine candidate is to test it on mice, and it has performed as expected in regard to the “spike protein,” an important step. However, it does not appear that they have yet demonstrated that this will stop the COVID-19 virus specifically, either in mice or in humans:

The scientists produced a vaccine that will be administered via a patch the size of a fingertip. The patch contains 400 “microneedles” made of sugar and protein pieces.

The patch is applied much like a stick-on bandage with the needles dissolving into the skin.

The vaccine they produced was tested on mice and it contained enough antibodies the scientists feel will successfully reverse the novel coronavirus.

This is actually two developments in one story, but it’s not yet clear that either has been firmly established. The idea behind the microneedle patch is that it introduces the vaccine just below the surface of the skin, where the body’s immune response has great sensitivity, without involving any blood transfer. That transfer system worked on the mice and generated a significant immune response, which is what most of their paper discusses.

Local CBS affiliate KDKA focused mainly on the delivery method rather than the vaccine itself:

That would truly be a revolutionary method of vaccination … if it proves effective. It would be safer for everyone, patients and providers alike, and it could be easily transported without too much worry over spoilage. Manufacturing might be a challenge, however, given how innovative the microneedle patch is, so it might be better suited for a later vaccine than an initial treatment.


The next stage of testing would be to determine whether that method also works on humans, and whether the spike protein teaches the body to defeat COVID-19 specifically. If the UPSM can demonstrate both at the same time, we may be onto something huge — but we’re not quite there yet. Yet.

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