SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development Leads the Way Towards COVID-19 Vaccine

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its course, public health experts and doctors have repeatedly stressed the importance of developing a safe and effective vaccine. Though it may be possible to gradually reopen sectors of the economy and adjust towards a “new normal” in the coming months, experts point to the development of a successful vaccine as the single most important measure in halting the global pandemic. 

Vaccine research centers across the country are working tirelessly towards that end, and as one of only nine elite Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units (VTEUs) in the U.S., SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development (CVD) has joined the fight. The CVD conducts Stage I to Stage IV research trials for vaccines in collaboration with government and private pharmaceutical companies. The VTEU designation allows SLU’s CVD to conduct these trials, which are an integral step in the eventual approval of a vaccine by the FDA. 

The designation VTEU was first established in 1962 by the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in order to conduct clinical trials for vaccines and treatments. According to the NIH, VTEU’s are especially important for reacting rapidly to emerging public health concerns, like COVID-19. This rapid response capability allows VTEU’s to enroll a large number of volunteers into vaccine trials safely and efficiently, vital in global pandemics, such as the current one, where time is of the essence. 

SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development has been a federally funded VTEU since 1989, and has been involved in vaccine research efforts for other major pandemics requiring rapid responses, including H1N1 in 2009 and the Zika virus in 2016. According to the CVD’s mission statement, they are “a highly-motivated research team of specialized and diversified health care professionals” who are dedicated to promoting health for the “greater good of humanity through research to improve vaccinations that prevent diseases for people of all ages.” 

With full scale research efforts underway, it is vital that the CVD has the funding it needs to sustain its work, and there have already been several federal level funding efforts. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced a grant of $9.8 million dollars for the state of Missouri to utilize for COVID-19 response, though it is unknown how much of those funds will be made available to the CVD, and last December the NIH rolled out a seven year, $29 million per year funding package for the nine VTEUs across the country. 

But with COVID-19 vaccine research more important now than ever, every bit of financial assistance makes a difference. Research efforts at SLU received a significant boost last Monday with a donation by Stepehen Peiper, M.D., a SLU Med alumnus, and his wife, Zi-Xuan Wang, Ph.D. The donation, which amounts to $750,000, will be used for COVID-19 vaccine development and will be vital in sustaining continued research even as SLU remains closed.  

For the director of the Center for Vaccine Development, Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., and his team of doctors and researchers, this financial assistance will invigorate efforts in fighting the immediate threat of COVID-19. President Pestello, Ph.D., expressed his gratitude in SLU’s official media coverage of the donation: “I am inspired by Drs. Peiper and Wang’s generosity and investment in the work of leading scientists at Saint Louis University,” Pestello said, lauding the Center for Vaccine Development as “second to none.” Pieper added, “As I studied the Vaccine Center, I realized that it was second to none, a program that was a jewel in the crown of the institution.”