BIDMC Immunologist at the Forefront of the Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine


APRIL 22, 2020

By April 2020, nearly 90 percent of Americans were living under stay-at-home orders issued by state and local officials in an effort to curb the number of infections and deaths caused by COVID-19. Public health leaders have suggested that such efforts to enforce physical distancing may have to remain in place, if intermittently, until scientists develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) immunologist Dan Barouch, MD, PhD has become a world leader in the race to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. As Director of BIDMC’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, Barouch and his colleagues began working on a COVID-19 vaccine on January 10, the night Chinese scientists released the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s genome. Barouch’s team quickly designed a series of vaccine candidates, which are currently being evaluated in preclinical studies.

“We were able to move so quickly in part because we were able to build on our previous vaccine work against other pathogens, including HIV and Zika,” said Barouch, who is also Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard. “We are in a race against time and against this virus.”

On March 30, Johnson & Johnson—in collaboration with the United States Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services—pledged to invest $1 billion to develop Barouch’s vaccine candidate, with clinical trials expected to start by September. If proven safe and effective, the COVID-19 vaccine could be available for emergency use by early 2021—which may be the shortest time from viral emergence to vaccine in medical history.

Barouch’s innovative vaccine design uses a common-cold virus, called the adenovirus, to deliver a small bit of the COVID-19 DNA into host cells, where it stimulates the body to raise immune responses against the virus. Over the last 20 years, Barouch developed the adenovirus strategy for use against pathogens such as HIV. One such candidate HIV vaccine developed by Barouch and colleagues is currently in clinical efficacy trials at sites around the world, the only remaining HIV vaccine currently in large-scale clinical trials. 

Barouch and colleagues successfully applied the strategy against the Zika virus in 2016 — also in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson.

“There’s a huge sense of urgency,” said Barouch. “We have people working long days, no weekends off, just to try to move things forward even just a little bit faster. Everybody wants to contribute to this global crisis as best they can.”

About Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a leading academic medical center, where extraordinary care is supported by high-quality education and research. BIDMC is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and consistently ranks as a national leader among independent hospitals in National Institutes of Health funding. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, a health care system that brings together academic medical centers and teaching hospitals, community and specialty hospitals, more than 4,800 physicians and 38,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.