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Can an Old Soviet-Era Idea Help Fight this New Virus?

By Shlomo Maital  

Dr. Marina Voroshilova and Dr. Mikhail Chumakov, left

      Sometimes, you battle a new foe, like the novel coronavirus, with an old idea – even one dating from Soviet Russia. Writing in today’s New York Times, Andrew Kramer describes a 60-year-old idea used by two virologists in the USSR, Marina Voroshilova and Mikhail Chumakov, that may be helpful in today’s pandemic.

       It sounds preposterous – use, say, polio vaccine to fight COVID-19? Really?

       Here is the basic idea:

     “We formed a kind of line,” Dr. Peter Chumakov, who was 7 at the time, recalled in an interview. Into each waiting mouth, a parent popped a sugar cube laced with weakened poliovirus — an early vaccine against a dreaded disease. “I was eating it from the hands of my mother.” Today, that same vaccine is gaining renewed attention from researchers — including those brothers, who all grew up to be virologists — as a possible weapon against the new coronavirus, based in part on research done by their mother, Dr. Marina Voroshilova. 

    “Dr. Voroshilova established that the live polio vaccine had an unexpected benefit that, it turns out, could be relevant to the current pandemic: People who got the vaccine did not become sick with other viral illnesses for a month or so afterward. She took to giving the boys polio vaccine each fall, as protection against flu.   Now, some scientists in several countries are taking a keen interest in the idea of repurposing existing vaccines, like the one with live poliovirus and another for tuberculosis, to see if they can provide at least temporary resistance to the coronavirus. Russians are among them, drawing on a long history of vaccine research — and of researchers, unconcerned about being scoffed at as mad scientists, experimenting on themselves.

     “Experts advise that the idea — like many other proposed ways of attacking the pandemic — must be approached with great caution. “We are much better off with a vaccine that induces specific immunity,” Dr. Paul A. Offit, a co-inventor of a vaccine against the rotavirus and professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview. Any benefits from a repurposed vaccine, he said, are “much shorter lived and incomplete,” compared with a tailored vaccine.   Still, Dr. Robert Gallo, a leading advocate of testing the polio vaccine against coronavirus, said that repurposing vaccines is “one of the hottest areas of immunology.” Dr. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that even if the weakened poliovirus confers immunity for only a month or so, “it gets you over the hump, and it would save a lot of lives.”

     The current pandemic has brought a tidal wave of creative ideas. Most fail. A few succeed. Even preposterous ideas, like enlisting polio vaccine, are worth a shot. The novel coronavirus is wily, clever, sneaky and in some places mutating; so we humans need to be at least half as smart as it is.


A Vaccine is Coming – from Pittsburgh

By Shlomo Maital

Univ. of Pittsburgh “Cathedral of Learning”

   Before the good news about a COVID-19 vaccine – a piece of history.

     In 1947, native New Yorker Jonas Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In 1948, he undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of different types of poliovirus. Salk saw this was a golden opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio. He built a research team and devoted himself to this work for the next seven years. The field trial set up to test the Salk vaccine involved 20,000 physicians and public health officers, 64,000 school personnel, and 220,000 volunteers.   Over 1.8 million schoolchildren took part in the trial.

    On March 26, 1953, Salk announced on a national radio show that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes the crippling disease of polio. In 1952—an epidemic year for polio—there were 58,000 new cases reported in the United States, and more than 3,000 died from the disease. Dr. Salk was celebrated as the great doctor-benefactor of his time.

   Fast forward.   A press release from the NIH:

   “After the identification of SARS-CoV-2, the genome sequence of the new coronavirus was rapidly released to the public by scientists in China. Several weeks later, National Institute of Health-funded scientists produced a detailed picture of the part of the virus, called the spike protein, that allows it to infect human cells. This spike protein is currently the target of several vaccine development efforts. And we see the graphic version of the corona ‘spikes’ everywhere…

   “Researchers led by Drs. Louis Falo, Jr. and Andrea Gambotto from the University of Pittsburgh have been working to develop vaccines for other coronaviruses, including the one that causes Middle East Respiratory System (MERS). They adapted the system they had been developing to produce a candidate MERS vaccine to rapidly produce an experimental vaccine using the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

   The team developed a method for delivering their MERS vaccine into mice using a microneedle patch. Such patches resemble a piece of Velcro, with hundreds of tiny microneedles made of sugar. The needles prick just into the skin and quickly dissolve, releasing the vaccine. Since the immune system is highly active in the skin, delivering vaccines this way may produce a more rapid and robust immune response than standard injections under the skin.

   “When delivered by microneedle patch to mice, three different experimental MERS vaccines induced the production of antibodies against the virus. These responses were stronger than the responses generated by regular injection of one of the vaccines along with a powerful immune stimulant (an adjuvant). Antibody levels continued to increase over time in mice vaccinated by microneedle patch—up to 55 weeks, when the experiments ended.

   “Using knowledge gained from development of the MERS vaccine, the team made a similar microneedle vaccine targeting the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. The vaccine prompted robust antibody production in the mice within two weeks.

   “The vaccinated animals haven’t been tracked for enough time to see if the long-term immune response is equivalent to that observed with the MERS vaccines. The mice have also not yet been challenged with SARS-CoV-2 infection. However, the findings are promising in light of results from the similar MERS vaccine.

   “The components of the experimental vaccine could be made quickly and at large-scale, the researchers say. The final product also doesn’t require refrigeration, so it could be produced and placed in storage until needed. The team has now begun the process of obtaining approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch a phase 1 trial within the next several months.

   “Much work still needs to be done to explore the safety and efficacy of this candidate vaccine. “Testing in patients would typically require at least a year and probably longer,” Falo says. “This particular situation is different from anything we’ve ever seen, so we don’t know how long the clinical development process will take.”

OK – it works in mice. Now for humans. A vaccine is on the way – and it may emerge again from Univ. of Pittsburgh.







Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital