While companies around the world are racing to be the first to get a vaccine or treatment out into the market for COVID-19, the scientists at Texas Biomedical Research Institute are working to help find the most effective vaccine, said Joanne Turner, the institute’s vice president of research.

“Obviously, all of [these companies] would love to be the first one, if they could,” Turner told the Rivard Report. “But really … it’s about investing in multiple potential vaccines with the hope that one works. It’s likely that all of them will work – but they may not all work for long-term vaccines, or they may not work in certain populations.”

The institute’s research consists of understanding the novel coronavirus virus better and in creating and testing potential treatments and vaccines by studying animal models. Initial findings showed macaques and baboons to be excellent animal models for studying COVID-19 and potential treatments.

These studies take time, Turner said, even as the local researchers push COVID-19 to the forefront. 

“We freed up time and space and personnel to take on this really practical need,” Turner said.

One of the institute’s researchers, Luis Martinez-Sobrido, is working on creating a vaccine using a weakened form of the virus, but it’s still in the early stages of research and development, a Texas Biomed spokeswoman said Wednesday. Other vaccines already being tested on humans, such as Moderna’s, use specific pieces of the germ to trigger an immune response.

Texas Biomed isn’t just working on creating and testing its own vaccine, but also is testing the efficacy of vaccines and treatments from drugmakers in the lab and on animal models, said Cory Hallam, vice president of business development and strategic partnerships. 

“We’re also supporting a lot of these large firms who’re coming to us to do their testing for them,” said Hallam, who declined to disclose which firms Texas Biomed are working with. “[We’re doing their] laboratory testing, which tends to be happening in parallel with some of their human testing right now.” 

In addition to Moderna, other drugmakers around the world are already testing on humans, such as Canada’s Medicago and India’s Zydus.

By testing in a lab, on animals, and on humans simultaneously, more data is being generated faster, allowing a product to clear regulatory hurdles more rapidly and get to market faster, he said.

The vaccine-to-market process has historically been a long one, usually requiring years of development and testing, Turner said. The mumps vaccine, considered the fastest ever approved, took four years to create. Following basic research, a vaccine must be developed, go through animal model studies, get FDA approval, go through several human clinical trials, then be mass manufactured and mass distributed. 

Even if an effective vaccine is ready for market by the end of the year, it might not be the best vaccine to come out of all the research going on worldwide, Turner said.

“What I expect we’ll see is that one [vaccine] is going to show really good promise early, that one will get investments,” she said. “It’ll go into people, and once they’ve done all the safety testing, there’ll be others coming through the pipeline that may actually end up being better in the end.”

Researchers will continue to work on better treatments and vaccines, and the global collaboration will inevitably make for the best solution against COVID-19, she said. 

“It may end up being the first one is the best one, and that could be the way, but I suspect it won’t be,” Turner said. “The first isn’t always the one with longevity. Usually, there’s more work behind [it] that comes through.”

Getting more than just one vaccine to market than one will also likely help drive the cost down, a concern after the federal government failed to include pricing protections in at least four contracts for drugs to combat COVID-19.

While the Texas Biomedical Research Institute has received more than $3 million in donations from USAA, H-E-B, the Mays Family Foundation, and others to study the coronavirus, it has received little federal funding for its research. 

Last week the institute received further private funding from the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics (SAPPT), which awarded a total of $600,000 to three COVID-19 research projects being conducted at Texas Biomed and UT Health San Antonio. One project is studying the role of a specific protein in the virus, while the other two are looking at how the virus evades the human immune system and prevents it from fighting back.

Texas Biomed also received $800,000 in funding from the Texas Biomedical Forum, a nonprofit women’s organization that supports the institute. 

Texas Biomed has submitted several federal grant applications related to its coronavirus research and hopes to receive federal funds in the upcoming months, a Texas Biomed spokeswoman said. 

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.