Vaccine Beginnings

Dr. Barouch in a research labFriday, January 10, 2020 is a day Dan Barouch, MD, PhD, will remember for the rest of his life. It was the annual retreat for his team of nearly 60 investigators and staff who research HIV and other infectious diseases. As director of BIDMC’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research (CVVR), he always looks forward to the retreat as a way to connect with his colleagues outside the lab. During the 2020 meeting, the group discussed the curious news of 41 reported pneumonia-like cases in China’s Wuhan province. “At that point, we were concerned that this might spread rapidly,” says Barouch.

As a group, we felt that we were in a position to possibly contribute something to help end this pandemic.
Dan Barouch, MD, PhD
Director of BIDMC’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research

Friday evening, Kathryn Stephenson, MD, MPH, director of the CVVR’s Clinical Trials Unit, scrolled through Twitter to unwind from the week. The self-proclaimed “Twitter addict” came across a post that would go on to change lives across the globe: Chinese scientists had shared the genetic sequence of the viral outbreak the lab had discussed earlier that day. She immediately forwarded it to Barouch. “In order to build a vaccine, the key is to know the genetic sequence of your target,” says Stephenson. “We were all online searching for it.” With this new, critical information, the team wasted no time in getting to work. By Monday morning, they had created a design and were ready to begin the undertaking of their careers: helping to develop a vaccine to protect against COVID-19.

“As a group, we felt that we were in a position to possibly contribute something to help end this pandemic,” says Barouch, whose team worked nonstop—days, nights, and weekends—on preclinical lab studies to develop a successful vaccine candidate. “That was the motivating force that carried us through the next 13 months.” Over the course of that time, the vaccine was rigorously tested for safety and efficacy, including in the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Phase 3 clinical trial. The largest and most complex COVID-19 vaccine study conducted to date, the trial included more than 43,000 participants in eight countries across three continents.

Just 58 weeks after that pivotal day in January 2020, the single-shot J&J vaccine was shown to provide robust protection against COVID-19-related hospitalizations and death, and was granted emergency use authorization by the US Food and Drug Administration.

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