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UL Lafayette reveals role in historic COVID-19 vaccine's development

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The road to the first globally available COVID-19 vaccine ran through the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Trials involving nonhuman primates at UL Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center helped determine the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the world’s first fully tested COVID-19 immunization approved for emergency use.

“We are so privileged to have been on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic,” said Jane Fontenot, NIRC’s director of Contract Research. “It’s very rewarding.”

The United Kingdom was the first nation to issue an emergency authorization for the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December. The United States, the European Union and other countries soon followed suit. Studies have shown that the vaccine is 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 after two doses.

Because of confidentiality agreements with Pfizer, UL Lafayette couldn’t discuss its role in the vaccine’s development until now. A publication in the peer-reviewed journal Nature is the first public confirmation of the University’s participation in the history-making effort.

Fontenot co-authored the publication, which appeared in the journal’s online edition on Feb. 1.

Beginning last spring, rhesus macaques at NIRC were immunized as part of nonhuman primate clinical trials of the vaccine. Staff administered vaccines, collected samples and observed the animals “for any signs of problems,” Fontenot said. “That included evidence of pain, elevated temperatures, loss of appetite – any symptoms that may have raised concern about tolerability.”

NIRC staff then helped facilitate transfer of the vaccinated animals to the Southwest National Primate Center, which is affiliated with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

The center in San Antonio includes a biosafety level 3 facility, which means it can securely handle live, airborne infectious agents such as COVID-19. NIRC is a biosafety level 2 facility, though UL Lafayette is seeking funds to bring it up to level 3 status.

In Texas, about a month after receiving vaccinations at NIRC, the rhesus macaques underwent the challenge phase of the trial in which they were exposed to COVID-19. Results showed the vaccine offered protection from the virus.

The federal Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use in mid-December 2020, about a year after COVID-19 first emerged globally. The first U.S. cases of the virus were reported in January of last year.

The rapidity of the vaccine’s development depended on pre-existing relationships the biopharmaceutical giant had with research facilities such as NIRC, said Dr. Ramesh Kolluru. He is UL Lafayette’s vice president for Research, Innovation and Economic Development.

“We were instrumental in Pfizer being able to work as quickly as they did,” said Kolluru, who cited the vaccine’s development – and the University’s role in it – as an “example of the power of public-private partnerships.”

“NIRC’s long history of collaborations with biomedical research companies and others provided a baseline of expertise on which the center could rely in its role in the vaccine’s development. The relationships we’ve nurtured over the decades enabled us to be a part of this historic answer to a global challenge.”

Dr. Joseph Savoie, UL Lafayette president, said the University and its researchers “were prepared to meet this moment. Few areas of life have escaped the pandemic’s effects, so to contribute to something that brings hope to the world is truly extraordinary.”

He continued: “This is what modern research universities do. ‘Research for a reason’ is a driving force for our University and there is no better motivation to do the work that we do than to help overcome a challenge like COVID-19 that has impacted all of humanity.”

The New Iberia Research Center is the nation’s largest academically affiliated, nonhuman primate research center. NIRC is home to more than 8,500 nonhuman primates.

Dr. Francois Villinger, the center’s director, noted that NIRC’s research collaborations include the biopharmaceutical industry, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations. Its research and development expenditures last fiscal year topped $54 million; 75 percent of that figure came from industry partners.

“We specialize in applied and basic research aimed at promoting human quality of life,” Villinger said. “The work we do here is all about bringing treatments and vaccines to the public.”

The center has previously supported attempts to develop vaccines for HIV and SIV in nonhuman primates. In addition, the center’s R&D activities have focused on preventing and curing infectious diseases such as flu, RSV, Zika, and Ebola.

Expertise, based on past and ongoing work, enabled NIRC to pivot quickly to address COVID-19, Villinger said.

NIRC is involved in eight vaccine and therapeutic drug studies related to COVID-19. That’s in addition to the center’s work on the successful Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Proving the vaccine’s effectiveness in nonhuman primates “started right here,” Villinger said. “That work began right here.”

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