By Maria Saporta
In this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, the best way to avoid a double whammy this fall is to get a flu shot.
Two of Georgia’s leading vaccine scientists were guest speakers at Thursday’s quarterly meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance, the influential public-private entity charged with forming ties between the state, business and academia.
In his opening comments, the normally diplomatic chairman – David Ratcliffe – clearly sided with scientists as opposed to the political controversies that have developed over how the nation has (or hasn’t) responded to the Coronavirus.
“My goodness, what a mess we have created in an area where science ought to be leading,” said Ratcliffe, the retired CEO of the Southern Co., who is in his second stint as GRA’s board chair.
Then Ratcliffe introduced two of GRA’s eminent scholars who are leading experts in the area of vaccines – Dr. Rafi Ahmed, a GRA eminent scholar in Vaccine Development who also is director of the Emory Vaccine Center; and Dr. Ted Ross, a GRA eminent scholar in Vaccines and Viral Immunity who is director of the UGA Center for Vaccines and Immunology.
Both spoke of the importance of developing a vaccine for the virus. They also said it was possible that certain vaccines currently in the Phase 3 trials could get the green light in the next three to six months.
“The rules of making a vaccine have been changed,” Dr. Ahmed said. “Normally it would take three to four years to develop a vaccine.”
Dr. Ahmed said the most optimistic scenario would be that the vaccines currently Phase 3 trials would get the signal that they’re effective at the end of the year. Production on those vaccines has already begun, so that “if the vaccine is effective, you don’t want to waste six months” to produce the vaccines. If the vaccines are not effective, the country may have spent $100 million on a vaccine that’s not effective.
Dr. Ross said several “vaccine candidates are moving forward,” and it is likely vaccines will improve the more scientists figure out the best way to treat COVID. The biggest danger, however, will be if one gets both the flu and COVID at the same time.
“The severity of the disease is much more intense when you have both,” Dr. Ross said. “Get a flu shot as soon as possible.”
Dr. Ross added the flu vaccine is available now – earlier than in other years. He also said that in the future it’s possible scientists will be able to combine a flu vaccine with a COVID vaccine – and it become a “respiratory vaccine.”
But he said there are still many unknowns about the lasting immunity of a COVID vaccine. People likely will need to get two injections for the vaccine for it to be most effective. That means to treat everyone in the United States, 700 million doses would have to be produced. Priority likely will be given to people who have a high risk of contracting COVID.
Valerie Montgomery Rice, president of the Morehouse School of Medicine, said her institution has received grant funding to make sure the clinical trials have “significant engagement in the community” – meaning that people of color, who are impacted disproportionately by the virus, be part of the trials.
Susan Shows, who recently was named GRA’s president, said she’s beginning her 20th year with Alliance. In its 30-year-history, the state has invested $650 million in the organization.
“GRA has generated a return of more than $6 billion,” said Shows, adding that those numbers do not include a multiplier for economic impact. “We’ve also received millions of dollars of research contracts.”
The last time GRA met was on March 5, when the high-powered board heard a report about the Coronavirus, which was still an abstract threat.
“It’s hard to believe that since we last met in March how much the world has changed,” Ratcliffe said. One fallout is that GRA has decided it doesn’t need as much office space as it currently has at the 191 Peachtree building. “We will move out of our office space and put it up for sublease.”