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Researchers pivot from COVID-19 response to preventing future pandemics

Antibody research
Posted at 5:51 PM, Apr 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-14 20:00:41-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Local researchers at Vanderbilt are working to stop pandemics before they happen.

At the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, they've practiced for pretend pandemics according to associate director Dr. Rob Carnahan. "We did a fake pandemic for Zika, we get Zika from human donors, and we were able to get to validated antibodies in 78 days," Carnahan said.

According to the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center Director Dr. James Crowe, they were practicing for another one when COVID-19 hit. "Right in the middle of our preparation we had to pivot because the people who were funding our work from the U.S. government said covid is here, it’s now, we need you to launch right now," Crowe said.

People slept inside the lab, glued to their work, and in 25 days they identified key antibodies in covid survivors which was a record. Crowe said, "and we’re trying to harness that natural immunity, and pull it out, and make it into really what’s like a drug so that we can give it to people to protect them."

Now, the monoclonal antibody treatment is in a late-stage clinical trial with AstraZeneca. "It’s a miracle what happened this year with all the vaccines and antibodies that people made, but it’s still too slow," Crowe said.

That's why they fought for a machine called the Beacon which is known around the lab as the ‘beast.' The Beacon machine in the video was funded by Dolly Parton and a Department of Defense program called the Defense Advanced Research Agency. Usually, identifying antibodies could take years, but the Beacon can pinpoint them rapidly.

Crowe said, "We’re sort of pivoting from reacting to thinking ahead." Now, they're analyzing around a hundred other viruses. Their goal is to have a solution before the problem because preventing a pandemic would save lives.

"So what we want to do is find people very early on in an epidemic that is small, find the antibodies from them, and develop them, so we could surround cases with a shield of immunity,” Crowe said, “This would be herd immunity, but rather than doing it by infection, we would give people the antibodies ahead of time."

You may recognize Dr. Crowe. He just appeared on CBS's 60 minutes in their segment called 'The Last Pandemic.'