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University of Iowa researchers – in partnership with colleagues at the University of Georgia – have developed a vaccine that fully protects mice against a lethal dose of MERS, a close cousin on the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The development, although still in its early stages as it's only been tested on mice, holds promise for a potential translation into a COVID-19 vaccine, according to UI Health Care officials.
The research is among a smattering UIHC scientists are pursuing in the global race to find a vaccine, cure, or treatment for COVID-19 – ravaging the planet, infecting upwards of 1.4 million around the world and killing more than 80,000 to date.
On Monday, UIHC announced it has received approval to participate in an international trial for a promising drug to alleviate COVID-19 symptoms and help hospitalized patients recover faster. Last week, UIHC executives announced they're close to receiving federal approval to use donated plasma from recovered patients to help those still fighting in the hospital.
Leading the team in the MERS-vaccine research is UI pediatrics professor Paul McCray and Biao He, with the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.
McCray, in a statement, said the study shows potential for a vaccine against the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, vaccine candidates for the novel coronavirus 'have been generated.”
Here's how the MERS study worked. Researchers engineered a vaccine using a harmless virus – the 'parainfluenza virus” or PIV5 – in hopes of delivering a MERS coronavirus protein into cells that would generate an immune response.
When they gave the vaccine to mice susceptible to MERS, those vaccinated mice were able to survive a lethal dose of the MERS coronavirus, according to results of the study published Tuesday in the scientific journal mBio.
The study found just one relatively low dose of the vaccine given to the mice was enough to fully protect them all. Upon further analysis, researchers found the immune systems of the vaccinated mice had developed both antibodies and T cells.
'However, the antibody response was quite weak and it seems most likely that the vaccine's protective effect is due to the T cell response in the mouse lungs,” according to a UIHC news release.
In opining about why the research is promising for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, scientists cited several factors – including that PIV5 can infect humans without causing disease and that it also seems successful at a low dose.
For that reason, researchers suspect the vaccine could be widely produced for mass immunization.
'We are planning more studies in animals to test the ability of PIV5-based vaccines in preventing disease caused by (the novel coronavirus),” McCray said in a statement.
PIV5 also is being investigated as a potential protectant against other respiratory illnesses, like influenza and RSV – or respiratory syncytial virus.
The vaccine in this new research was the most effective to date against MERS in animals.
MERS – short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – and COVID-19 both are caused by coronaviruses. MERS is deadlier and is fatal in about one-third of cases, although there are far fewer cases – only 2,494 cases since 2012.
Conversely, more than 1.4 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported worldwide since it emerged in late 2019 in China. More than 80,000 have died.
The UI-Georgia vaccine research was funded through grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. McCray, who also holds an appointment in the UI Department of Microbiology and Immunology, is supported by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust.
Other UI members of the research team include Kun Li, Christine Wohlford-Lenane, David Meyerholz, Rudragouda Channappanavar, and Stanley Perlman.
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