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Biology Professor Mack Powell Discusses Finding a COVID-19 Vaccine

Students in a lab


As a professor in Western Carolina University’s Department of Biology who specializes in immunology and infectious diseases, Mack Powell finds the COVID-19 pandemic particularly interesting.

The virus has rapidly spread across the world, shutting down many countries along the way, while killing thousands in the process.

“It’s coming into a non-immune population,” Powell said. “We’re looking at primary infections from the get-go. Until there’s a vaccine, the only way to be immune to it is to get it. That’s interesting in and of itself.”

Image by mattthewafflecat from Pixabay

Image by mattthewafflecat from Pixabay

With most of the country practicing social distancing, several communities have issued stay-at-home orders in hopes of curtailing the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, scientists are scrambling to find a vaccine for COVID-19. How quickly that is developed remains to be seen.

Powell said one vaccine is already under clinical trials, which is a precursor to regulatory approval. Powell said with that vaccine, scientists used the RNA from the virus rather than a protein, which provides the basis for most vaccines.

Typically, before beginning clinical trials, scientists will conduct testing involving animals to see if there’s any indication that the vaccine is protective. Powell said he was unsure if this would happen with COVID-19.

Clinical trials usually take place in three stages. The first phase typically involves a dozen or more healthy volunteers who are used by researchers to monitor the vaccine for safety, checking for adverse side effects. Phase 2 involves a few hundred people to gauge the effectiveness of the vaccine, while phase 3 does the same with a few thousand people.

“There are big problems always with human vaccine. If you’re doing an animal study, you’d vaccinate them, wait a while and then infect them,” Powell said. “Obviously, you can’t do that with humans, which is why the trials have to be so widespread. It’s a time-consuming process. I don’t think anybody wants to shortcut the safety issues. It’s just going to take a while. Obviously, they’re going to fast-track it as best they can.”

Prior to WCU’s extended spring break and shifting of its classes to online learning, Powell would give coronavirus updates to his “Cellular and Molecular Immunology” class. He said he plans to further implement the virus into future lessons.

Powell does have advice for those who have been forced to remain at home. “In situations like this, I know many people often feel helpless, like ‘What can I do to help out?’ ” Powell said. “The biggest thing you can do is nothing. When you stay at home and sit on your couch, you are helping out. I wish people could take a positive attitude about the social-distancing issue.”

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