Blossom Damania, PhD, is Vice Dean for Research in the UNC School of Medicine and the Boshamer Distinguished Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
How did the Moderna trials come to be at UNC Health?
UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health was one of the enrolling sites for Moderna to test if their COVID vaccine was efficacious. Dr. Cindy Gay was the lead on this trial. All of the data we generated was used to determine that the vaccine does work, and enabled the Food and Drug Administration to issue an Emergency Use Authorization. UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health also generated part of the data set that helped get FDA approval for the Moderna vaccine to be used in the general population
Now that COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, what is next for UNC’s research?
We are continuing our work on clinical trials for additional COVID-19 vaccine platforms and we are continuing our research on understanding the biology of SARS-CoV-2. We are also working on additional treatments for COVID.
UNC researchers are working to try and understand how long the vaccine’s immunity lasts – a year? Two years? A lifetime? These are questions we need answered. If the immunity is short-term, this kind of vaccine would have to be given annually like a flu vaccine. There are still a lot of outstanding questions that we are trying to address right here at UNC.
Will the current vaccine continue to be effective?
It’s becoming very clear that the virus is mutating as it moves through the world’s population. There are new mutant viruses circulating all over the world. It’s really important to continue surveillance of the virus. We have researchers here at UNC that are conducting viral genome sequencing and continuing to monitor the virus to make sure the vaccines will be efficacious. Dr. Dirk Dittmer’s lab is crucial in this tracking project. As of right now, our research suggests the vaccines should work against the current mutant virus. But it’s really important for us to be vigilant and constantly monitoring circulating viruses to make sure the virus strains that are circulating in the United States can be stopped by the vaccine. If we find that the virus has changed so much that the current vaccine does not work anymore, we will have to redesign the vaccine strategy.
This kind of research requires a lot of investment. Philanthropy will help to keep us moving forward and make sure people are continuously being protected by our vaccination program. Moreover, funds such as the COVID-19 Response Fund help to keep research going and help us develop the best vaccines and treatments. COVID is not going away any time soon – it will be an ongoing battle for some time to come.
What are UNC’s COVID-19 priorities beyond vaccine research?
We need additional drugs – something you could just get at a pharmacy. Currently remdesivir, which was developed by Dr. Ralph Baric here at UNC, is being used for COVID-19 treatment. However, this drug requires you to go to a hospital to get an infusion of it. For most people, by the time they realize they are very sick it’s already too late for that drug to work. We want to develop new antiviral drugs where in the first few days that you start feeling sick you can pick up a prescription from your pharmacy – like we do for Tamiflu – and take it at home in pill form. That is the best-case scenario. Our UNC researchers are continuing to work on finding new drugs that can prevent COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. There are multiple research fronts we are working on – antivirals, tracking the virus by sequencing, making sure our current vaccines and drugs continue to work – and there are a lot of factors involved in that.
Why is philanthropic funding so important for this research?
The process of procuring grant funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health is a very long one that often takes a couple of years and requires a lot of preliminary data. Philanthropy is so important for generating that initial data. In essence, you need funding to get funding. Private donations allow us to bridge that gap and pursue the most promising therapeutic advancements and compile critical data to share with the NIH, while also allowing us the flexibility to pivot our research priorities quickly as breakthroughs are made. To get grant funding, you have to show that your research is extremely promising. Even though we now have effective vaccines in hand (which is really, really great news!), there is still so much more work to be done, and our researchers are continuing to do it.
To make a gift supporting COVID-19 response at UNC Health and UNC School of Medicine, please click here.
For more information on supporting these efforts, please contact Martin Baucom at firstname.lastname@example.org.