Houston Matters

Coronavirus Vaccine Developed A Decade Ago Could Be ‘Ahead Of The Curve’

A vaccine, developed by Houston-area researchers beginning in 2010, has been shelved due to a lack of funding but is “worth investigating” for potential use on the current coronavirus outbreak.

Scientist holding test tubes in a laboratory
Houston-area researchers say a vaccine developed a decade ago for the SARS outbreak is worth investigating for potential use on the current coronavirus outbreak.

Earlier this week, the Houston Business Journal reported that a local company claims to have completed a vaccine for COVID-19.

The developer, Greffex Incorporated, is a genetic engineering company and just one of many institutions working to develop a vaccine for the current outbreak.

And while the news is promising for the future of dealing with COVID-19, it will actually be quite some time before any such vaccine is available to the public. But another vaccine developed in Houston beginning a decade ago could potentially offer some protection from the virus sooner.

Back in 2010, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston developed a potential vaccine for SARS 1, which is another type of coronavirus. An outbreak of that virus in China between 2002 and 2003 killed more than 700 people.

The virus making headlines right now can also referred to as SARS 2. Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, the co-director of Baylor’s Center for Vaccine Development, told Houston Matters with Craig Cohen on Thursday that SARS 1 and SARS 2 are genetically about 80 percent similar. And the SARS 1 vaccine has already gone through much of the testing processes needed for approval.

“We may be ahead of the curve,” Bottazzi said.

But it’s been sitting in a freezer for several years because researchers had trouble generating interest (and therefore funding) for clinical studies once the outbreak subsided, Dr. Peter Hotez told NBC News this week.

While Dr. Bottazzi cautioned there’s no certainty that a vaccine developed for SARS 1 would work on SARS 2, it’s worth investigating because they both use the same receptors to enter human cells.

“We have to move very quickly to evaluate also the ones that we think are at least low-hanging fruit,” she said. “It’s better to have some partial protection than no protection at all.”

A sign telling visitors at St. David’s Medical Center to alert staff if they’ve traveled to a region with cases of COVID-19 and have certain respiratory symptoms.

How Approval Works

Either vaccine would still face many hurdles.

“It is a long process,” Bottazzi said. “The utmost objective is safety.”

And that process often begins with years of testing in the laboratory to get to this point. But then, once a potential vaccine is created, researchers have to determine whether it can be reproduced in large quantities and at an affordable price.

Simultaneously, researchers start testing whether the vaccine is safe. That includes studies with laboratory animals and performing toxicology tests. Those hurdles must be cleared before researchers can even request permission from regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration to begin safety studies on humans.

“And after you certainly have shown proof of safety you can then do more evaluations to make sure that the vaccine actually works and does what you intend to do,” Bottazzi said.

Maria Elena Botazzi - Baylor College of Medicine
Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi of Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development.

When A Vaccine Could Be Ready

A new vaccine for this outbreak of coronavirus would not likely be deployed in just a matter of months, like some have suggested.

In any new vaccine, Bottazzi says a lot depends on the results of the early tests for toxicology and human safety. And that can take six to nine months. From there, those results will be used to design better clinical studies to evaluate the vaccine’s effectiveness.

From there, clinical studies would take at least six months but most likely much longer. Bottazzi said most studies follow the patients for up to a year if not more to see how patients respond.

So, if you’re doing the math, that means it could take 12 to 18 months if not longer for a vaccine to reach the public. And that’s in line with the timetable laid out last week by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

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