February 24, 2021

UL Lafayette Reveals its Role in the COVID-19 Vaccine Development

UL Lafayette Reveals its Role in the COVID-19 Vaccine Development

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has had a hand in the development, effectiveness, and success of the world’s first fully tested COVID-19 immunization approved for emergency use, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, according to a press release from the school.

The effectiveness of the vaccine was determined through nonhuman trials that involved primates at UL Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center. Jane Fontenot, NIRC’s director of Contract Research commented on the opportunity saying, “We are so privileged to have been on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic. It’s very rewarding.”

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

Up until now, UL Lafayette has been unable to discuss their historic role in the vaccine’s development due to confidentiality agreements with Pfzier. A publication in the peer-reviewed journal Nature is the first public confirmation of the University’s participation in this astounding effort. Fontenot co-authored the publication announcing the involvement.

Rhesus Macaques at NIRC were immunized as early as last spring as part of nonhuman primate clinical trials of the vaccine. The process involved staff administering vaccines, collecting samples, and observing the animals “for any signs of problems,” Fontenot noted. “That included evidence of pain, elevated temperatures, loss of appetite – any symptoms that may have raised concern about tolerability.”

Afterwards, the NIRC staff helped to facilitate the transfer of the vaccinated animals to the Southwest National Primate Center, which is affiliated with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute. The San Antonio-located center includes abiosafety level 3 facility, meaning that it can securely handle love, airborne infectious august such as COVID-19. The New Iberia Research Center is a biosafety level 2 facility, though UL Lafayette is seeking funding to raise it up to level 3 status.

A month after first receiving the vaccinations at NIRA, the rhesus macaques underwent the challenge phase of the trial which involved them being exposed to COVID-19, and results showed that the vaccine offered protection from the virus. Then, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorized by the federal Food and Drug Administration for emergency use in mid-December 2020, about one year after COVID-19 first emerged in the world.

The rapid pace with which the vaccine was developed had depended on pre-existing relationships that the biopharmaceutical giant had with research facilities such as NIRC. This was said by Dr. Ramesh Kolluru, UL Lafayette’s vice-president for Research, Innovation, and Economic development. 

Dr. Kolluru reportedly said, ““We were instrumental in Pfizer being able to work as quickly as they did.” He went on to cite both the vaccine’s development and the role that the University played 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 on 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.”

UL Lafayette’s president, Dr. Joseph Savoie said that both 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.”

The New Iberia Research Center is the nation’s largest academically-affiliated, nonhuman primate research center, and it’s home to over 8,500 nonhuman primates.

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