Pitt researchers attacking virus on several fronts


Already having samples of the coronavirus COVID-19 on campus has made it easier for UPMC to develop the test that is now being used on people in Pittsburgh who fear they have the virus, Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, said at the March 19 Senate Council meeting.

Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research, led by Paul Duprex, was one of the first non-government facilities to get samples of the virus to start working on a vaccine. “He has now produced sufficient virus to infect an animal model for the disease,” Levine said at the meeting, “And we are hopeful that will eventually result in a useful vaccine.”

But Levine cautioned no matter who finally develops a vaccine, it will probably be one to two years before a viable vaccine is available to the public.

On Thursday, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations announced that it will invest an initial $4.9 million in a partnering agreement with an Institut Pasteur-led consortium that includes Themis Research in Belgium and the University of Pittsburgh to develop a vaccine candidate against COVID-19. This collaboration brings CEPI’s total investment in COVID-19 vaccine research and development to $29.2 million.

Another group at Pitt, led by Dimiter Dimitrov, a professor of Medicine, has “produced antibodies now that they know effectively block the virus from entering cells in a very, very low concentration — an ability that’s extraordinarily powerful,” Levine said.

The antibodies, when produced in sufficient quantity, could be injected into people who are well and give then antibodies against the virus for three to six months. Even people who are already ill would benefit from the antibodies, Levine said, because “it would prevent second and third generations of cells from being infected if the antibodies were present.”

Levine also cited work by Donald Burke, emeritus dean of the Graduate School of Public Health, on the epidemiology of COVID-19. Finally, the School of Pharmacy has a group that is looking at existing drugs that have already been approved by the FDA that might be repurposed for therapeutic treatments in seriously ill patients.

He also said that as of March 19, he was told that UPMC was more than adequately supplied with personal protective equipment for health care workers and ventilators.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said at the meeting that Pitt is working with UPMC on several fronts. He said that Lothrop Hall is being cleared out now to make room if hospital staff need a place to stay during long shifts.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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