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Uncertain Times: Wistar’s Historic Strides in the Time of COVID-19

April 29, 2020

This is week six of the stay-at-home order in Pennsylvania and Darien Sutton, associate director of Communications & Marketing, caught up again with President and CEO Dario C. Altieri, M.D., for their second virtual chat about what’s going on with the COVID-19 emergency.

Sutton: What’s up with the buzz cut?

Altieri: This? Oh, this is my homemade pandemic cut. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, we will need fewer than 50 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people to reopen things in Philadelphia. And not just for one day, but for two weeks straight. Currently, we are at about 400, a long way away. So, I figured it will be a while before any barber shop reopens and I took matters into my own hands. Literally. Plus, the look reminds me of the good old days in the 27th Artillery Regiment.

Sutton: Speaking of the pandemic instead of your looks, what are we seeing right now?

Altieri: The numbers continue to be worrisome. Unfortunately, the U.S. is the world epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic with over 900,000 confirmed cases and more than 54,000 deaths. About half of those numbers are in two states, New York and New Jersey. We have heard a million times about flattening the curve. The curve has flattened but the cases have not yet come down. Right now, it seems more like a plateau, not dissimilar from what European countries have experienced.

Sutton: And yet, we hear talks about reopening the country, restarting the economy and going back to some sort of normalcy. Are we ready to do that?

Altieri: Clearly, one size doesn’t fit all: Certain parts of the country have seen relatively few cases. Others have done very well at containing the outbreak. Others yet may not have even peaked. There are still a lot of things that we don’t know about the virus and how it spreads. I think we should be very, very cautious at what we do next and how we do it. If you had told me two months ago how devastating COVID-19 would be, I would not have believed it. I am stunned that as a society we seem to tolerate an average of 2,000 COVID-19 deaths a day.

Sutton: And talking about the unknowns, what are the most important things that we should figure out before we reopen?

Altieri: First, we still don’t know what the impact of asymptomatic spreading is. This is the scenario of someone next to you on a commuter train or in line at a grocery store, who is not sneezing, coughing or anything and yet is spreading the virus. Earlier data from Wuhan suggested that this kind of spreading is rare, maybe around 1%. But more recent studies suggest that the number is actually much, much bigger, maybe even in the high 30%. And, second, how protective are the antibodies against COVID-19 that we find in people after an infection? A study from New York suggests that more than 15% of people who never complained of COVID-19 symptoms actually have antibodies against it. This says that the virus has been with us for much longer than we thought. But does it also mean that those people are protected against (re)infection?

Sutton: Moving on to Wistar now, did anything happen since the last time we spoke?

Altieri: Oh, not much. We simply made history. Again. David Weiner’s recombinant DNA vaccine against COVID-19 entered clinical trials this month. This is only the second vaccine against COVID-19 that is being tested in the U.S. Accrual has been brisk, and the study is apparently on track to successfully complete enrollment of about forty healthy volunteers by the end of April.

Sutton: Why is that making history?

Altieri: Well, David and his collaborators at Inovio moved the COVID-19 vaccine from design to FDA-approved clinical testing in 83 days. This is breakneck speed, I think unprecedented for drug discovery and development. Second, David has accumulated impressive preclinical results suggesting that his vaccine generates a robust immune response in laboratory animals. Of course, we need to see what happens in humans, but the initial data suggest that the vaccine will awaken our immune system against COVID-19. Phase 2 efficacy trials will tell whether this translates in protection against the virus.

Sutton: This is clinical development 101. Since Wistar doesn’t have a hospital, how can Wistar support the advancement of the vaccine?

Altieri: We have a world-class infrastructure of people and facilities at Wistar that will be instrumental to advance this vaccine candidate through the process. We have also received an incredible outpouring of support and generosity from so many people to finance these and other research efforts focused on COVID-19. This has allowed us to move really fast and in multiple research directions creating amazing new collaborations, which is typical of how Wistar approaches science.

Sutton: Certainly, strong reasons to be upbeat in face of the current bleakness. Any other reason to look up?

Altieri: Absolutely. Gronk reunited with TB12 in Tampa. Watch out NFC South.