The race is on to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, and one trial taking place in the D.C. region could lead to the first vaccine in the U.S. to fight the deadly disease.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore is running one of several clinical trials for a vaccine being developed by drug maker Pfizer and biotech company BioNTech.
The vaccine being tested does not have particles of the coronavirus in it — as is the case with more traditional vaccines, such as ones for the flu. Instead, this vaccine is designed to produce antibodies that can neutralize the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, according to professor of medicine Dr. Kirsten Lyke, who is running the study.
“We are able to generate an immune response that may be protective,” Lyke said.
The companies behind the trials are testing several versions of the vaccine to see which would work the best.
After watching all the news about the virus, Tiffany Potter, of Capitol Hill in D.C., said she began learning as much as she could about the pandemic.
“I was obsessing about it, probably in an unhealthy way,” Potter said.
While reading, she came across a call for participants for a vaccine candidate at the University of Maryland. Wanting to protect herself and her father, who is in the high-risk category for the virus, she decided to take part in the trial for the version of the vaccine being tested.
“Yes, I was taking a risk, but I was getting something that was helpful to me as soon as possible,” Potter said.
Potter was one of around 60 participants taking part in the study at the medical school. Some got the vaccine, others got a placebo.
During the course of the trial, neither the participants nor the researchers will know who received the real vaccine. In medicine, this kind of trial is referred to as a double-blind study and is used to prevent bias from forming as the trials go forward.
Potter believes she got the vaccine because she had minor symptoms, including a headache, body aches and a mild temperature for a day.
Lyke also doesn’t know whether Potter got the actual vaccine, but did say fatigue, low-grade fevers or some arm pain are not uncommon with vaccines such as this because they prompt an immune response.
For Potter, she said she continues to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for staying safe from the virus, including wearing a mask, but admits taking part in the study has eased some of her anxiety about the disease.
“I feel a sense of calm, and I feel a sense of control,” Potter said.
Lyke said while she doesn’t know who got the vaccine, she has seen some data on the trial and feels it does show promise.
“The immune response that we’re seeing is actually better than the immune response from people who have recovered from COVID-19,” Lyke said.
The next step would be for the companies producing it to decide which version of the vaccine to move forward with — the one being tested at the University of Maryland or one of two others being done at other sites.
After that, Lyke said the final vaccine will undergo large-scale testing and could be available for distribution by December.
This is an exceedingly fast pace for a vaccine trial, which can often take years to reach the stage where they are ready for distribution.
This vaccine could potentially be ready within a year of the virus’ discovery, according to Lyke.
“Detecting the virus — which was in January — to having a viable vaccine, we hope, it could be as short as 12 months,” Lyke said.
If successful, a big order is waiting for the companies behind it. The federal government has agreed to pay Pfizer and BioNTech $1.95 billion for 100 million doses of the vaccine.
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