The Texas Biomedical Research Institute.
The Texas Biomedical Research Institute. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Eight weeks since the Texas Biomedical Research Institute began studying the effects of COVID-19 on five different animal species, the San Antonio-based facility shared its first major findings.

Since the beginning of April the institute has been conducting simultaneous studies on baboons, macaques, marmosets, mice, and guinea pigs to work towards finding a coronavirus vaccine and treatment.

Of the five animals studied, Rhesus macaques and baboons have proved to be “excellent animal models” for the development of vaccines and treatments, said Dr. Deepak Kaushal, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center and one of the principal investigators of the Texas Biomed study.

Researchers used animals of different ages within each study and injected them with the novel coronavirus, after which they studied the effects of COVID-19 on each group, Kaushal said Tuesday during a video briefing. Researchers observed the animals and scanned the primates’ lungs, took rectal swabs, measured oral fluids, and took tissue samples from the animals in order to study the virus’s effects. 

“What we found was that macaques developed clinical signs of COVID-19 and also signs of … pneumonia, and they also had … [strong] immune responses,” Kaushal said. 

Macaques rapidly developed clinical signs of viral infection and inflammation, he said. While both young and old macaques developed early signs of COVID-19, both groups also recovered within a two-week period. Studying the macaques’ quick immunological response has been helpful in understanding what it takes to fight off the virus, he added. This will be useful in developing a treatment for patients with COVID-19. 

Baboons, on the other hand, were useful in studying long-term effects of COVID-19 on an animal, Kaushal said. 

“You need a model where disease is more prolonged and more intense,” he explained. “Rhesus macaques and baboons develop … different but quantifiable disease attributes.”

By quantifying data from the models, the scientists have a comparison point for measuring how well treatments and vaccines work in the future, Kaushal said. 

“What we’ve done here at Texas Biomed is [speed up the] process [of finding a cure],” Texas Biomed Vice President of Research Joanne Turner said. “By finding the right animal model within two months, we can already start vaccine screening in our animals.” 

These studies are important because animal models are a critical component of the biomedical pipeline necessary to fast track any new therapies or vaccines that come to market, said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, president and CEO of Texas Biomed. 

“We will not have a vaccine for COVID-19 without an appropriate animal model in which to completely test safety and efficacy,” Schlesinger said.

Although there are reports of vaccines that are already being tested in human populations, these are largely small phase one clinical trials that have a primary goal to test safety, he said. These same vaccines will have to be tested in an animal model to ensure that the vaccines work in a large population before they can be widely used, Schlesinger added. 

Animal model studies are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to bring any new therapies or vaccines to market, which means these studies are critical, he said. 

The institute has had 40 team members working on these studies over the past several months, Schlesinger said. While conducting the research, these researchers have also been writing up their findings to submit to a peer-reviewed journal, he said. 

“We’re currently acquiring all the necessary approvals, and it will be submitted within the next 72 hours,” Schlesinger said. “This, too, is important because it means that the research community around the world will have the opportunity to scrutinize our work to ensure that it is of the highest quality, and we’re confident that study will be published in the coming weeks.” 

Researchers at Texas Biomed, as well as others around the world seeking a coronavirus vaccine, are working on an expedited timeline, but it appears unlikely that any coronavirus vaccine will become available for another 12 to 18 months, Turner said. After that, refined vaccines will likely be issued over time as more studies are conducted and completed.

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Lindsey Carnett

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