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Yerkes Awarded NIAID Grant to Develop COVID-19 Vaccine

May 18, 2020

Media Contacts

Lisa Newbern, 404-727-7709, lisa.newbern@emory.edu

Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have received a two-year, $582,000 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. This research is critical to preventing COVID-19, for which the World Health Organization reports there are more than 4.5 million cases worldwide and 310,000 deaths.

Yerkes researcher Rama Amara, PhD, also a researcher at the Emory Vaccine Center (EVC) and a professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory School of Medicine (SOM), is leading the research team and using his 20 years of experience developing an MVA-based vaccine for HIV/AIDS; that vaccine has successfully completed phase 2 clinical trials in the U.S.

“We expect to have initial results about the effectiveness of our MVA COVID-19 vaccine in mice by this fall and are hopeful our vaccine will be one of the ‘shots on goal’ Dr. Fauci referenced in his recent National Geographic interview,” Amara says.

MVA, a harmless version of a poxvirus, is safe, easily produces an immune response and prompts long-lasting antibody and T cell responses, which are critical for vaccines to be effective. Previous research showed a single MVA vaccination provides protection against multiple viral infections, including SARS-CoV (considered a cousin of the current SARS-CoV-2), MERS, Zika and Ebola viruses. Another major advantage of MVA vaccines is they can be used in combination with other vaccines to enhance the immune system’s response.   

Amara says, "My team members and I quickly changed focus to apply our extensive knowledge in developing an HIV vaccine to address the current COVID-19 pandemic.” The research team includes: Mehul Suthar, PhD, an assistant professor at the EVC and the Department of Pediatrics, Emory SOM; Vineed Menachery, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, University of Texas Medical Branch; and Yerkes researchers Sailaja Gangadhara, PhD (research associate), Nandakishore Routhum, PhD, and Narayanaiah Cheedarla, PhD (both postdoctoral fellows), and Ayalensh Shiferaw (research specialist). 

The researchers’ first steps have been to identify the right form of the spike protein, a key component in the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ ability to infect human cells, to generate a strong antibody response to neutralize any infection, therefore blocking the virus from entering the cells. The researchers have also assessed T cell responses, known for controlling viral infection, and now are developing multiple versions of MVA vaccines, all intended to prevent COVID-19 infection. The researchers will select the MVA vaccine that performs best in mice for protection and safety, and then test that vaccine in monkeys.

“With the NIAID funding, we are accelerating our timeline to discovery,” says Amara. “Having rodents and monkeys on site at Yerkes is a great advantage for proceeding as efficiently as possible. Ultimately, we will use results from the animal studies to optimize a vaccine for clinical studies in humans,” Amara adds.

Amara expects this process to take at least 18 months given the required lab work and animal and human safety and effectiveness testing, but Amara adds, “the team is continually assessing our approach to safely fast track the process given the critical need to stop this global pandemic.”  

Yerkes is well-positioned to conduct this research because of its scientific expertise, animal colony and specially designed facilities, which keep personnel, the research and the environment safe. In addition to the NIAID grant 3R01AI148378-01S1, the study will be supported in part by the Yerkes National Primate Research Center base grant P51OD011132 from the NIH Office of the Director, Office of Research Infrastructure Programs.

Grant amounts (direct + indirect):

3R01AI148378-01S1  $582,625/for 2 years

P51OD011132  $10,540,602/yr

Note: The amounts listed above are for the full grants. Only a portion of the P51 will support infrastructure needs of the COVID-19 vaccine study reported in this news release. 

Dedicated to discovering causes, preventions, treatments and cures, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (NPRC), part of Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, is fighting diseases and improving human health and lives worldwide. The center, one of only seven NPRCs the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds, is supported by more than $74 million in research funding (all sources, fiscal year 2018). Yerkes researchers are making landmark discoveries in microbiology and immunology; neurologic diseases; neuropharmacology; behavioral, cognitive, and developmental neuroscience; and psychiatric disorders. Since 1984, the center has been fully accredited by the AAALAC International, regarded as the gold seal of approval for laboratory animal care. For more information about Yerkes and the seven NPRCs, visit NPRC.org and follow us at @NPRCnews.

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The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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