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University's 'underdog' vaccine shows promise

By David Nicklaus St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A St. Louis startup has licensed a COVID-19 vaccine developed at Washington University that won't be one of the first on the market, but could have advantages over other early vaccine contenders.

An article in Nature this month described the Washington U. research as one of several "underdog" vaccines that could be important if early candidates fail, or confer only partial protection against COVID-19.

The vaccine was developed by Washington University professors David Curiel, a cancer biologist, and Michael Diamond, a viral immunologist. Curiel is founder and chief executive of Precision Virologics, the St. Louis company that announced the technology license last week.

Precision Virologics, which is also developing vaccines for other diseases including mosquito-borne Zika, acquired rights to the COVID-19 vaccine for the United States, Europe and Japan. An Indian company, Bharat Biotechnology, licensed the rights for the rest of the world.

The vaccine developed by Curiel and Diamond is administered in a nasal spray rather than an injection. The nasal application has several advantages: It requires a single, smaller dose of vaccine, it's easier to administer, and, in trials in mice, it appears to destroy any coronavirus that was already present.

"It eradicated the virus in the upper respiratory tract," Curiel said in an interview. That, he added, could have major benefits in stopping the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Washington U. vaccine has only been tested in mice so far. The National Institutes of Health is funding chimpanzee trials now, and Curiel said he hopes to start human trials next spring at St. Louis University and Washington University. That leaves it far behind companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, which have been conducting human trials for months. Moderna said this month that it has enrolled 21,411 people at its trial sites, which include St. Louis University.

A latecomer to the vaccine race can still make a big difference, Curiel said. He compared the potential impact of a nasal COVID-19 vaccine to Albert Sabin's oral polio vaccine, which came several years after Jonas Salk's injectable vaccine but proved to be safer and more effective.

"We're one of those that started a little later but may be better," Curiel said. "We believe that the novel design, along with the intranasal application, gives us some important advantages."

The Washington U. vaccine uses an adenovirus, one of several viruses that cause the common cold, modified to contain the "spike" protein that's characteristic of the novel coronavirus. It uses a version of the adenovirus that infects chimpanzees, because many people have immunity to the human adenovirus.

Bharat, the Indian company, said it planned to seek approval to start clinical trials in India. Bharat's chairman, Krishna Ella, said in a statement that he envisions eventually producing 1 billion doses. Curiel said he hoped that the Indian trial could start by the end of this year.

If all goes well in U.S. trials, he said, the vaccine could be widely available by late next year. BioGenerator, the investment arm of industry group BioSTL, made a seed investment in Precision Virologics and helped the startup with business development.

"This is kind of a nice St. Louis story," Curiel said. "It's developed here, is being projected forward by the local biotech industry and we'll do clinical trials here."