Vaccine research still going full speed at Pitt


The first COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in the United States has arrived in Pittsburgh, and UPMC held a public event on Dec. 14 to begin administering doses to its frontline workers.

The Food and Drug Administration gave approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on an emergency basis on Dec. 11. Anantha Shekhar, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, said at the Dec. 10 Senate Council meeting that UPMC expects to get about 29,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. He expects most of those workers to be vaccinated in the next four weeks.

What’s unclear is when the vaccine will be available for faculty, staff and students is still unclear.

The Moderna vaccine, which was approved by an FDA advisory panel on Dec. 17 and is expected to get full approval soon, will likely go to people in long-term care facilities, Shekhar said. He expects that if adequate supply chains are in place that most people will be able to get vaccinated in the next six months.

“It’s really astounding how far we’ve come in 10 months,” Paul Duprex, head of Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research, told Senate Council.

The Pfizer vaccine may be the first, but it may not be the best, Duprex said, particularly because the vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius. “It’s very important that we have lots of work on other vaccines.”

At the Center for Vaccine Research, Duprex said they just signed a contract with Merck to provide preclinical data using the animal models that were set up right at the beginning of the pandemic. The center was one of the first in the nation to receive samples of the virus for testing.

The center also is working on a COVID-19 vaccine on a measles vaccine backbone. The vaccine is developed and owned by Pitt and licensed for clinical trials in India through a commercial partnership with Serum Institute of India, a company Duprex said vaccinates two-thirds of the world’s children.

“We don’t want to just think about products for this part of the world; we want to think about products for all over the world, because this is a global problem,” he said.

The issues that concern him now are how long will the immunity to the virus last after someone receives a vaccine and how will the virus change.

And finally, he said, “There’s no point developing these novel vaccines if we cannot convince the people to use them. Vaccine hesitancy is a challenge, and that demands strong communication from trusted messengers and that’s one of the programs that we’re trying to put in place with communities in Pittsburgh.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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