Dr. Richard Kennedy is a Mayo Clinic researcher who studies vaccines against viral pathogens like the coronavirus that has created a worldwide pandemic.
The PB talked to Kennedy and asked his opinion about the prospects of a COVID-19 vaccine and when one might become available.
Is Mayo Clinic working on a vaccine for COVID-19?
Kennedy: Yes, that's one of the focuses in my lab. There are other labs here at Mayo that are working on similar vaccines. So we have multiple efforts underway right now.
Where are we in its development?
Kennedy: We are in the early, pre-clinical stages. It's not something that you will see rolling into clinical trials like you are with some of the other vaccines. Those vaccines have been based on research that we've done and learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2012 MERS outbreak. We've taken what we learned from those other coronaviruses and tried to shift it and rapidly develop a similar vaccine that we can use against this new coronavirus.
I understand that there about 35 companies and academic institutions in a race to develop a vaccine. Are we kind of behind in the race?
Kennedy: In one way, yes, but Mayo's not really been a vaccine developer per se. We're focused more on treating patients. So it's not that we're behind, it's that we're starting from a different location. That's not been our bread and butter recently.
We're hearing reports of the drug hydroxychloroquine showing signs of helping to cure COVID-19. Is it a potential cure? What do you know about it?
Kennedy: So, chloroquine is an anti-malaria drug that we've had for awhile. It, along with a number of other drugs, are all in clinical trials right now. There's some anecdotal evidence — that's very small studies — that have shown, 'Hey, we've given this to people and they've gotten better.' But the problem is, with really small numbers of people studied and no control groups, we don't know if it was the drug or if they just got better because they were going to anyway.
That drug and a bunch of others are undergoing clinical trials. And what's good about some of those is that in laboratory studies and animal models, it looks like it's got some activity against the virus. So now we're hopeful that it will work in humans, too.
Does the end of the pandemic and the cycle of mitigation and suppression end with a vaccine?
Kennedy: I'd love to be able to answer that question. Right now, we don't know. For example, the 2003 SARS outbreak ended as the weather got warmer and then we've never seen a case since. So it might go that route. In 2012, with MERS, it's still an ongoing, low-level problem. Not a lot of cases because it's not very transmissable. (The coronavirus) is more transmissable. And much like the normal coronaviruses that we deal with every year, a little more serious disease.
We're hoping that it will die down from the summer months. But we just don't know enough about the virus to definitely state that it will or will not.
The Minnesota Department of Health was able to eliminate a backlog of coronavirus tests with Mayo Clinic's assistance. Would you speak to the role Mayo is playing in fighting this pandemic?
Kennedy: It's all hands on deck, especially on the clinical side. The clinical and diagnostic labs developed their own tests. They rapidly scaled up capacity, so that they can run thousands of tests today.
Now they're trying to deal with how we might overcome shortages in the supplies necessary to build the kits. They've got the drive-thru, walk-up testing clinics, so they're rolling out everything they can and pulling out all the stops.
Many people are anxious and fearful during this time. Do you have a message of hope?
Kennedy: We'll get through this. We've been able to get through every one of these virus outbreaks in the past, and they happen fairly regularly. It's normal to have anxiety. It's even normal to have fear. It's what we do with those feelings. Do we let them overcome us, or do we overcome them?
We can't be physically close to one another, but let's remain socially close and connected and help each other out.