SAN ANTONIO – “Wow, what a year it has been,” said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, president and CEO of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, about the first anniversary of the CDC declaring the nation was in a pandemic.
Reflecting on what’s happened since then, Schlesinger said, “I have mixed emotions.”
Schlesinger said he could never have predicted more than 500,000 lives in the U.S. would be lost to COVID-19.
“That’s an enormous number,” Schlesinger said.
But on the other hand, Schlesinger said, “Science is the real hero this year.”
“We’ve never had a situation where in roughly 11 months we have shots in our arm, we’re accelerating vaccines and our case rates are coming down as a result,” Schlesinger said.
The vaccines had to first undergo clinical trials using volunteers, but to do so safely, pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer asked Texas BioMed for its help.
“As a result of our expertise, our scientists, the dedication, support from the community, we were able to quickly develop animal models in a couple of months that recapitulate human mild and moderate COVID-19,” Schlesinger said.
Schlesinger said doing so helps the companies understand whether the vaccine is going to work.
One of two primate models, the rhesus macaque monkey, was the lead model used by industry partners, he said, and its baboons also were susceptible to COVID-19.
Schlesinger said they also used rodent models, such as a type of hamster, since its pathology resembles that of humans.
However, Schlesinger said the work at Texas BioMed isn’t over. He said it’s studying the COVID-19 variants that didn’t exist a year ago.
“We’re understanding how our animal models perform with regard to the variants,” he said.
Schlesinger said it’s also identifying and validating animal models that are essential for testing new therapies and more vaccines.
Texas BioMed is working with up to 30 companies performing clinical studies and validations recognized by the FDA, Schlesinger said.
Although significant progress has been made, Schlesinger said now is not the time for anyone to let their guard down.
“God forbid, at this late stage to have more infections or more deaths when we have these vaccines rolling out,” he said.