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COVID-19 vaccine study shows severe disease preventable in hamsters

OHSU immunology researchers contribute to research published in Nature Medicine
COVID research
In a recent study on a possible vaccine being developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, hamsters that were vaccinated did not experience severe COVID-19 symptoms. (Getty Images)

For the first time, early research in hamsters demonstrated that an investigational coronavirus vaccine candidate may help protect against severe COVID-19 disease.

The study, led by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston with contributions from Oregon Health & Science University, was published Sept. 3 in the journal Nature Medicine. It examines the investigational vaccine being developed by Johnson & Johnson affiliate Janssen Pharmaceuticals. In earlier preclinical research, the same investigational vaccine robustly protected nonhuman primates against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This investigational vaccine candidate now is being tested in humans through a Phase 1/2a clinical trial in the U.S. and Belgium.

Jacob Estes, Ph.D.
Jacob Estes, Ph.D.

“This small animal model study suggests that, in cases where a vaccine can’t completely prevent infection, it may lessen COVID-19’s severity by preventing its most catastrophic outcomes such as death,” said study co-author Jacob Estes, Ph.D., a professor at the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and chief of the pathobiology and immunology division at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU.

Vaccinated hamsters in the study did not experience severe COVID-19 symptoms. The researchers defined severe COVID-19 in hamsters as extensive pneumonia and lung inflammation, high amounts of coronavirus, and substantial weight loss.

The research team also found hamsters can develop severe illness and weight loss after becoming infected with a high dose of the virus that causes COVID-19. This indicates hamsters could be good models to evaluate how well potential vaccines protect against severe coronavirus. Previously studies involving other animal models have generally led to mild to moderate COVID-19 disease.

OHSU contributed to this study by analyzing tissue samples. In addition to Estes, the OHSU scientists who contributed include Chi N. Chan, Ph.D., Stephen Bondoc, B.S., Carly E. Starke, Ph.D., Michael Nekorchuk, Ph.D., and Kathleen Busman-Sahay, Ph.D.

For more information, see the announcements from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Johnson & Johnson.

OHSU’s involvement in the study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants OD011092 and OD025002).

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