Shared from the 5/28/2020 San Antonio Express eEdition

Could bio-threat drug attack virus?

Professor’s ‘rabbit fever’ vaccine to be tested against coronavirus


UTSA microbiologist Karl Klose was granted $200,000 to develop a COVID-19 vaccine based on decades of research on a rare bio-threat known as “rabbit fever.” Courtesy photo / UTSA

Courtesy photo /Centers for Disease Control

Professor Karl Klose’s team is trying to combat COVID-19 based on his work on tularemia. The team will try to engineer a vaccine that would prevent coronavirus’ spikes from entering cells.

Researchers believe a vaccine originally developed in San Antonio to combat tularemia, the rare and deadly “rabbit fever,” also could work against the corona-virus.

The San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics, a consortium of four bioscience research institutions, is pitching in $200,000 to find out.

Liz Tullis, the partnership’s executive director, said the organization is backing a collaborative study led by University of Texas at San Antonio microbiologist Karl Klose after his proposal beat out 16 others in the city.

Established by UT Health San Antonio, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, UTSA and Southwest Research Institute several months ago, the group vets and jump-starts projects with funding so researchers don’t have to rely on the months-long federal grant process, Tullis said.

Each institution is providing scientists to work on the potential COVID-19 vaccine.

The Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio, which promotes collaboration in infectious disease research, plans to contribute 25 percent of the total project cost.

Joanne Turner, the center’s executive director, said there are about 10 potential vaccines under discussion, but probably dozens of others that are still in the early stages of development.

“Even with an accelerated process due to urgency, it may take many months to years to develop a safe and effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2,” she said. “It’s also possible that the first vaccines used will be replaced later, once scientists have a better understanding of what protective immunity is and can then design vaccines with improved protection or longevity.”

This second wave of therapeutics is most likely where the tularemia vaccine, originally developed by Klose, will fit in.

Klose, director of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, spent the last two decades researching the bacteria that causes “rabbit fever,” which, while rare, can be used as a deadly bio-weapon.

The tularemia vaccine was being tested on bio-threats, including anthrax, with some success, he said, so he’s optimistic about whether it could also work against the coronavirus.

He discovered how to deactivate the organism’s ability to cause disease, which led to the identification of a vaccine candidate that was safe and effective in several different animal studies.

Scientists will genetically engineer the prototype vaccine to insert the SARS-CoV-2 “spike protein,” and then test whether the vaccine can produce neutralizing antibodies against the protein.

“It’s a general concept that works for lots of different diseases. Theoretically, it should work for the coronavirus,” Klose said. Those neutralizing antibodies, he added, are why patients are benefiting from plasma taken from COVID-19 survivors.

A few weeks before shelter-in-place orders went into effect, the tularemia vaccine had been developed to an advanced stage, with scientists working on formulations for eventual human use, funded by an $18 million grant to the Southwest Research Institute from the U.S. Department of Defense.

More than 140 clinical trials of potential COVID-19 related drugs are underway, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is working to expedite development of a vaccine.

Last week, the FDA issued guidance for researchers and created an emergency program for possible therapies called the Corona-virus Treatment Acceleration Program.

The federal program’s website notes that at least 457 drug therapies were in the planning stages as of May 11.

Klose stops short of saying that his vaccine will be the one that rises to the top, but even if it fails, the vaccine’s results can help scientists learn more about the corona-virus that emerged in December.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about the virus because it’s so brand-new,” he said. “What I can say is it’s going to take lots of people throwing everything they’ve got at this virus to come up with the best solution.”


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