Powerful pharmaceutical company teams with nonprofit to fight to create vaccine to battle COVID-19

ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News has learned that a powerful pharmaceutical company is teaming up with a scientific research nonprofit to stop COVID-19.

There has been a global scramble over the last few months to develop vaccines and treatments for the disease, but this latest approach is different. Researchers are utilizing the same technology used to fight another outbreak: Ebola.

Dr. Swati Gupta, with the scientific research nonprofit IAVI, is one of many researchers worldwide working to find a vaccine for SARS-COV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“When you’re working on something that’s a global pandemic, when you see it all around you, it’s affecting your family, it’s affecting your friends, I don’t think our team could be working any harder,” Gupta said.

On Tuesday, Channel 2 Action News learned pharmaceutical giant Merck is working with IAVI and other companies to develop an antiviral drug and two different vaccines.

“What you’re trying to do is teach the immune system to generate a response when it’s exposed to the virus,” Gupta said.

What makes IAVI’s vaccine different is they are using the virus vesicular stomatitis, found in cows and horses, to get the vaccine into the body.

“One of the other benefits of our strategy is that it’s already worked once before,” Gupta said, referring to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed thousands in 2014 through 2016.


The same animal virus was used to create the first FDA-approved Ebola vaccine in 2019.

Experts say using technology that’s already been approved could help get the vaccine ready more quickly for human trials.

“It’s important for many laboratories to be doing this all at once," said Dr. M.G. Finn, chairman of the school of chemistry and biochemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology. "In many ways, creating a vaccine ... is a random process.”

A second vaccine is currently in animal trials.

“There may not be one single vaccine," Finn said. "There may be different vaccines for different segments of the population and different vaccines as we go forward in time.”

Vaccines trick the human body into thinking they’ve been infected with a virus. Then the body learns from the imposter by developing an immunity to fight the real virus when it strikes.

“Making a vaccine is the art of deception to trick the immune system to have this kind of response without actually making you sick,” Finn explained.

Creating the right formula to get the vaccine into our immune system is just one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is getting the drug to billions of people around the world.

Some vaccines in development require multiple doses to work. Gupta said they’re working a single dose.

“When you’re talking about the globe, or using billions of doses of vaccine, it’s a lot faster when it’s a one-dose vaccine versus a two-dose,” he said.

Scientists around the world are trying to get a safe and effective vaccine in months when the process usually takes years.

Finn said for that to happen, he needs all the friendly competition he can get.

“There cannot be too many cooks stirring the pot here,” Finn said.