Axel Lehrer

Axel Lehrer

A scientist at UH and assistant professor at the John A. Burns School of Medicine is working to develop a vaccine to combat the global spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Axel Lehrer, an expert in vaccine development, is collaborating with a group of lab colleagues in the Departments of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology at JABSOM along with biopharmaceutical companies Soligenix, Inc. in New Jersey and Hawaii Biotech, Inc. 

“In general, my laboratory focuses on developing vaccines for neglected and emerging infectious diseases including understanding the epidemiology and pathology for the infectious agents,” Lehrer said in an email. “...It was a natural response for us to start working on a COVID-19 vaccine.”

His previous work, with the success of an Ebola virus vaccine and a Zika virus vaccine, has steered the way towards finding a vaccine for COVID-19. 

The Ebola virus vaccine’s ability to withstand high temperatures allows for vaccinations to maintain their potency for a minimum of 12 weeks and be produced in large quantities. 

Dr. Lehrer and his team are using this same technology for the COVID-19 vaccination and the next stage is to conduct test trials in small animals in the next few weeks— but a Food and Drug Administration approved vaccine could take longer, according to Lehrer.

“The typical path to a vaccine licensed by the FDA is approximately fifteen years if no hurdles are hit. However, if we can use an accelerated development path, we are confident to be able to start human clinical trials in 12-18 months,” Lehrer said.

While vaccine development for COVID-19 could be a success, organizing the distribution of it is another issue, according to Lehrer. 

“There are always many hurdles in making available sufficient amounts of material and so in the spirit of using scarce resources that the whole world may need soon, careful decisions will have to be made by global public health authorities in developing the best strategies on how to organize vaccination campaigns once a product has been developed,” Lehrer said.

In comparison to RNA based approaches for other Coronavirus vaccines, Lehrer’s conventional method for this vaccination uses antigens to prolong the resistance of the virus for longer durations of time which has been proven successful by other RNA vaccines on the market. 

“It seems very likely that our approach will be successful,” Lehrer said. “Others also work on candidates that are quite similar. However, we believe that through our collaborations we will be able to develop a product with very positive storage conditions that will allow widespread use.” 

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Esther Kim is the Editor in Chief of Ka Leo. While she is a Bachelor's of Social Work student, she has a passion for writing and wants to use journalism in conjunction with social work to progress conversations surrounding social justice and equity.