Leading health experts and scientists at SUNY Upstate Medical University continue to study transmission of the novel coronavirus in households and develop antibody, convalescent plasma and various testing and treatment initiatives.
Health officials hope to combat the severity of the pandemic as a stronger virus resurgence threatens the globe through the fall and winter.
Health professionals at Upstate Medical University, in Syracuse, have worked on various COVID-19 research and development initiatives for months, including virus transmission studies, the development of more efficient and saliva-based diagnostic tests, studying several emerging treatment medications and therapeutics and a coronavirus vaccine, Dr. Stephen Thomas said Tuesday during a virus presentation to SUNY’s Board of Trustees. The board held a regular virtual meeting that continued for several hours Tuesday afternoon.
“I think it shows the many ways SUNY institutions can be not only connected to big pharmaceutical corporations, but provide more important information to their local communities and shows the diversity of the scientists,” Thomas said.
Thomas was appointed last week as the lead principal investigator for the worldwide Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial, which is showing about 90% efficacy in preventing COVID-19 transmission. Upstate is one of the global phase three vaccine trial locations.
SUNY’s Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday confirming Thomas as the lead principal investigator for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial.
“Dr. Thomas, it is an honor to have you here with us,” SUNY Board of Trustees Chairwoman Merryl Tisch said. “You grace us and honor us with your distinction, your accomplishment and your presence.”
More than 300 adults ages 18 to 85 are enrolled in the Pfizer immunization trial aiming to prevent COVID-19. The facility was approved Tuesday morning to include young adults ages 12-17.
Upstate signed a contract to conduct a study with GeneOne’s phase 1 DNA coronavirus vaccination.
A phase 2-3 vaccine trial will feature manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur, part of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed to accelerate the development of a safe COVID vaccine.
Thomas’s work will benefit health experts combating the coronavirus across the nation, and the globe, said SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras.
“His expertise is unparalleled,” the chancellor said.
Upstate is involved with a community cluster and refugee cluster cohort based in Central New York, including Oswego, Cortland, Cayuga, Onondaga and Madison counties, to determine the virus transmission within households. To date, the campus enrolled 44 of 300 selected families, showing a 19% secondary infection rate. The refugee cluster study includes data from more than 1,000 people or 336 households, 27 countries and 22 languages.
Both studies examine viral transmission and correlation of other demographics, including socioeconomic status. COVID-19 infections and deaths are higher in poor neighborhoods and communities of color.
“I love these studies because they put us literally in the household of the people we serve in our communities,” Thomas said.
The state medical university and research center is working to develop saliva-based individual COVID-19 diagnostic tests. Most coronavirus tests are conducted with a swab inserted and moved about the nasal cavity for several seconds.
Health experts are studying several COVID testing subclasses, a neutralizing antibody test and how avid antibodies are in binding to the virus and expect to expand research to pooled testing, or the ability to test several coronavirus samples in batches at once.
“That’s absolutely tremendous and has been a game-changer and has been applied around the state,” Thomas said.
SUNY’s 64 campuses and institutions largely used pooled virus testing to test hundreds of thousands of students, faculty and staff through the fall semester.
Upstate sponsored the on-site administration of convalescent plasma therapy to 30 patients in one week in a partnership with the American Red Cross. Medical personnel collected plasma from more than 300 COVID-19 survivors.
At the time of plasma collection, Thomas said, “patients had already declared whether they were going to survive or not.”
Scientists continue to study various therapeutics including Janssen, Regeneron, Eli Lilly, hydroxychloroquine and others. Dozens are enrolled in trials to update patient care coronavirus treatments, as well as SAB — a treatment using cow-derived virus antibodies.
“You have genetically engineered cows that have the spike protein from the virus and produce millions and millions of antibodies,” Thomas said. “It’s like convalescent plasma, except very specific to humans and on a large scale.”
Each bovine costs about $75 million. The study is being conducted in two places — SUNY Upstate Medical and by researchers in South Dakota.