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UW researchers launch effort to develop unique type of COVID-19 vaccine


MADISON (WKOW) -- Researchers at UW-Madison are working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, one that operates differently than traditional vaccines and would primarily benefit people who are at most risk from the disease.

Carl Ross, Director of Waisman Biomanufacturing, which operates through the university, said the facility is working with North Carolina-based Heat Biologics to develop the vaccine, which they're hoping to have ready for Phase One trial by early 2021.

"We're doing things faster than it's ever been done before," Ross said. "Normally a process like this would take a year, a year and a half to get into a Phase One clinical trial and we're doing it in six months."

The vaccine is different than traditional vaccines where an inactivated strain of the virus is injected. This vaccine has proteins engineered to appear as cells damaged by COVID-19.

In theory, this will allow the body to immediately detect when the disease is attacking the body and to boost white blood cells as they track down the antigen and destroy it.

"This would be similar to if you had a bloodhound and you wanted it to find someone, you'd show it a piece of clothing so it knows what to go get," Ross said. "That's kind of what the vaccine does."

The researchers from Waisman and Heat believe this approach could especially help people in high-risk categories.

In a statement emailed Tuesday, Heat CEO Jeff Wolf wrote, "Heat's gp96 COVID-19 vaccine program is focused on providing prophylactic protection to elderly patients and those with underlying health conditions, the very group of patients with an increased risk of complications and death from COVID-19 infection. Heat is one of the few companies specifically developing a T-cell activating vaccine intended to treat those most at risk."

Ross said the immune system-boosting proteins are especially helpful for those at greater risk because those same individuals are less likely to have a positive response to traditional vaccines.

"They will have a harder time responding to the traditional vaccine, such as the (Warp Speed vaccines) that are being developed," Ross said.

Dr. Jonathan Temte, Associate Dean of Public Health at the UW School of Medicine, said it will be key for multiple vaccines to come available to meet supply needs. He added that would also bring complications.

"If one line goes down, there's a supply for others so that's the good part," Temte said. "The bad part is that, with these vaccines, they're so very different from each other that if you get started with one dose with one vaccine, you really have to have that vaccine the next time around."

Temte said that will lead to healthcare systems needing to ensure they're able to do the type of extensive record keeping required to make sure people know they're getting the right vaccine.

To get there, there must first be vaccines that clear all trial phases and meet approval for mass distribution. The goal of Phase One trials is to determine whether a vaccine is safe for use.

If the vaccine clears that phase, it moves onto Phase Two trials, during which researchers test the effectiveness of the vaccine while still monitoring safety. Phase Three trials are when the vaccine is tested to determine if it's effective with a large sample of patients.

"The disease has ravaged society to such an extent that we need to have multiple irons in the fire, so to speak," Ross said. "Multiple shots on goal to try to get a solution and get back to normal."