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Utah researchers hopeful after team announces early vaccine success


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SALT LAKE CITY — An American drugmaker testing a COVID-19 vaccine created a lot of excitement this week after it announced promising results.

A couple of local COVID-19 researchers were hopeful, but also realistic about the work that lies ahead for the drugmaker, Moderna, in the trials of that vaccine.

The Massachusetts-based company revealed this week that a COVID-19 vaccine was successful in developing antibodies in some patients in a small trial.

Doctors here in Utah, working on their own COVID-19 projects, said they consider a vaccine before the end of the year a miracle.

“We were glad to see the results of the tiny trial from Moderna and we know that there is still a long process ahead of getting it right,” said Dr. Samuel Brown, an Intermountain Healthcare Critical Care physician and researcher.

Brown is working on a couple of drug trials related to COVID-19, but not the Moderna vaccine.

“To get the risk-benefit that you need for widespread use of a vaccine, you’ve got to go through the process,” he said.

Doctors around the globe are working on a COVID-19 vaccine as fast as they can. Any vaccine not properly tested can backfire.

Vaccines are a complicated intervention in our immune system, Brown said.

“The last thing we want is a vaccine that hasn’t even been tested getting used, and then it increases infections in the immune system, which turns the immune system on too hard so that it causes collateral damage,” he said.


But he felt hopeful when drug maker Moderna revealed that its vaccine currently being tested on 45 patients developed antibodies in eight of them.

Antibodies are believed to be the key to protecting us from COVID-19.

“Whether they work, and whether they achieve the end that we hope they will is totally unknown,” he said. “We ought not give up hope. And I think a lot of people feel a little bit gloomy right now.”

He said it would be a miracle if there were a safe and effective vaccine for the public any time this year.

Dr. Michael Kay is a researcher and professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, which is also focused on COVID-19 solutions.

“It’s a promising first step,” he said. ”It’s a very early step, and it’s hard to read too much into it in terms of what it means in terms of a timeline for having a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine widely available.”

He said companies like Moderna strive to be fast and effective.

“This is their chance to really shine and see if that impressive technology and all of the theory behind it really can result in an effective vaccine in an unprecedented timetable,” Kay said.

He said no vaccine has ever been developed this quickly.

Whether they work, and whether they achieve the end that we hope they will is totally unknown. We ought not give up hope. And I think a lot of people feel a little bit gloomy right now.

–Dr. Samuel Brown, Intermountain Healthcare Critical Care physician and researcher

“I think we’re going to learn a tremendous amount about how to develop vaccines from this experience that is likely to be very helpful for future pandemics,” he said.

Kay said that fast-tracking is not unrealistic right now since so many people in the medical world are working on this problem.

“Given the pandemic situation, and the urgency of the situation it does make sense and there are efforts underway to build large scale manufacturing so that it is ready to go,” Kay said.

Ready to make the vaccine once it is approved.

He cautioned there is no way to shortcut the vaccine trials.

If it takes a year or two before we have a COVID-19 vaccine, as several national experts have asserted, that would not be deemed slow.

“Let’s be clear, a year or two is blisteringly fast,” Brown said.

He said that means we will have to continue to wear our masks and social distance while doctors work as quickly as they can to get a vaccine ready.

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Jed Boal


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