University of Pittsburgh To Begin Work on Novel Coronavirus Vaccine

Duprex in a suit and green tieThe University of Pittsburgh, whose legacy of medical breakthroughs includes the polio vaccine, is in the process of obtaining samples of the novel coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, that will allow its researchers to begin work toward developing a vaccine against the disease. As of Feb. 13, the outbreak has killed more than 1,300 people and sickened more than 60,000 worldwide, including 13 cases in the U.S.

W. Paul Duprex, director of Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research and its Jonas Salk Chair for Vaccine Research, discussed this effort at the Feb. 12 meeting of the University’s Senate Council. While there have been no reported cases in Pennsylvania, a panel of Pitt experts separately hosted a meeting that evening to answer community questions and dispel misinformation about the virus in general. 

Experts discuss the virus

More than 250 people attended a panel discussion on Feb. 12 to hear a group of Pitt and public health experts discuss the coronavirus outbreak. Read about what they had to say.

Duprex said the Pitt center formed a coronavirus task force a few weeks ago and is pursuing the live virus from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop disease models that will support vaccine development. Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research is one of the few labs nationwide qualified to handle pathogens like SARS-CoV-2, which stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus. (The virus was recently found to be related to the species that caused the 2002-03 SARS outbreak.)

“As researchers and as an institution we have a duty to do everything we can to learn more about the novel coronavirus and develop a vaccine to help those in need,” said Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Pitt’s medical school. “The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is one of the few institutions in the country equipped to work with this virus. True to our legacy, the Center for Vaccine research has some of the finest minds capable of taking on this challenge.”

“At Pitt, we have a long history of studying viral and bacterial diseases—and addressing emerging and reemerging infections,” Duprex said. “We no longer have to deal with the poliovirus because a vaccine was developed here. Jonas Salk is part of the fabric of our city. We know that vaccines work. Vaccines matter.”

In his announcement, Duprex emphasized the significant research expertise and facilities at the University, which includes the state-of-the-art Biosafety Level 3 laboratory inside the Center for Vaccine Research. This laboratory has a team of scientists with significant experience working in aerobiology, biological imaging and immunopathology who investigate emerging infectious diseases and biodefense priority pathogens.

The director cited the support of University colleagues from areas including the Office of the Chancellor, Office of Community and Governmental Relations, Department of Environmental Health and Safety, Division of Laboratory Animal Resources and Office of Sponsored Programs, along with institutional committees on biosafety and animal care.

He also noted the importance of collaboration among research institutions, government, nonprofits and industry.

Duprex said it was premature to predict precisely when a vaccine would become available, but that it was important to use a diversity of approaches to ensure ultimate success.

“We have the experience at Pitt to contribute to this,” he said. “The one challenge with vaccines is that the development process is not fast. When you’re vaccinating people, the safety of the vaccine being administered is paramount.”