Pittsburgh Lends Expertise, Arms to Moderna Vaccine Development

A physician with a face mask and shield gives another person in a face mask a shotThe biotechnology company Moderna on Monday reported preliminary trial data indicating its COVID-19 vaccine candidate is 94.5% effective—progress that has the support of the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC.

Moderna has been working with the city of Pittsburgh and other major U.S. cities on its Phase 3 clinical trial. About 250 people from the Pittsburgh region have received either the two-shot Moderna vaccine or placebo.

“It’s a great day for science,” said Judy Martin, who is leading the efforts in Pittsburgh. “Over 250 Pittsburghers were willing to roll up their sleeves and volunteer. And that’s what has led us to this efficacy rate that no one had ever dreamed of.”

Martin directs the Pittsburgh Vaccine Trials Unit at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and serves as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh. “We have a strong and wonderful team here at the Pittsburgh Vaccine Trials Unit. Everyone has been pouring their heart and soul into this study, recruiting participants, enrolling and following them,” she said. “This is something we’ve been working toward for months now.”

The Moderna vaccine’s encouraging results come one week after the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced early data from its own Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial. Pitt experts expressed optimism about the Pfizer vaccine candidate, shown in early trial data to be more than 90% effective against the disease, as well as the Moderna vaccine.

In comparing the two vaccine candidates, Graham Snyder, associate professor in Pitt’s School of Medicine Division of Infectious Diseases, pointed out that the Moderna vaccine has one early advantage: It can be stored in conventional, rather than super-cold, freezers.

“Compared to the Pfizer vaccine, the storage requirements for the Moderna vaccine will be operationally easier to meet. Deployment and long-term use of COVID-19 vaccines will depend on all of these details,” said Snyder, who is also medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC.

He added: “As more vaccine developers share updates on stages of vaccine development—and to reiterate, it is historic that so many vaccine candidates are being developed so quickly—each of these vaccines will be different in the details of their clinical parameters as well as requirements for storage and distribution.”

Like the Pfizer vaccine candidate, the Moderna vaccine still has a ways to go before it can be offered to the general public.

“This is just very early interim analysis looking to see if it’s working,” said Martin. “We’re still looking for more safety data. All this data has to be presented to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before there’s any decision on an Emergency Use Authorization or approval. We have many steps to go still, but this is a very positive reinforcement that we’re doing the right thing.”

Walid Gellad, associate professor of medicine and health policy at Pitt, said with cases rising nationwide, including in Pennsylvania, the FDA can safely schedule a committee on approving vaccine candidates soon. And the race against the clock is real.   

“If you look at the state of the pandemic right now, and the exponential rise and the stress on the health care system … with the rate things are moving and the holidays, two or three weeks,  I think, makes a big difference right now.”

“Yes, these vaccines show promise, but is it over? Is it finished? Absolutely not,” said Paul Duprex, director of Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research, which is also working on its own vaccine candidate. “It’s not just about getting something across the line, getting something licensed, it’s about getting it made, it’s about getting it distributed.”

The University of Pittsburgh’s proud history in pioneering vaccines

This April marked the 65th anniversary of the announcement that a polio vaccine created at the University of Pittsburgh was effective in large-scale field tests. Developed by a team led by Jonas Salk, it was a first glimpse of an end to that pandemic.

Today, Pitt continues that legacy with pioneering work on a vaccine against COVID-19. Here are just a few of the hundreds of ongoing studies at Pitt.

In addition to the Moderna trials, Paul Duprex in the Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) is working to harness a measles vaccine engineered to express SARS-CoV-2 proteins on its surface to generate immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Also through CVR, William Klimstra, associate professor of immunology, is investigating an antibody therapy called SAB-185 that could be used to both treat COVID-19 and prevent it in frontline workers and in military personnel. In August, SAB-185 was injected into healthy volunteers for a Phase 1 safety study.

Associate Professor of Cell Biology Yi Shi and colleagues recently described a new method to extract tiny but extremely powerful SARS-CoV-2 antibody fragments from llamas, which could be fashioned into inhalable therapeutics with the potential to prevent and treat COVID-19.

As part of the national effort Operation Warp Speed, Pitt and UPMC have been chosen as a site for Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccine trials. The Phase 3 AstraZenceca trial, led by Associate Professor of Medicine Sharon Riddler, seeks to determine if the vaccine can prevent COVID-19 and for how long.

Additionally, Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute has awarded nearly $1 million to 17 studies working on different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, from modeling the virus to developing treatments and figuring out the role of the lung’s microbiome in the infection.