A graduate student at UGA works in a lab testing influenza vaccines.

A graduate student at UGA works in a lab testing influenza vaccines. / GPB News

The University of Georgia is collaborating with Rhode Island based company EpiVax to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

Director of the Center of Vaccine and Immunology Dr. Ted Ross will head up the project at his lab in Athens. He and his team have received the COVID-19 virus and are ready to begin their work in a high-security containment facility to produce and test a possible vaccine.

As of Saturday, March 14 The Georgia Department of Public Health had identified one death and 66 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. That number doubled from the known cases Friday and numbers continue to rise.

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Ross has been working with influenza vaccine for 15 years and says the novel coronavirus, which shares many of the same clinical manifestations as influenza, seemed like a natural transition for his lab. Unlike influenza, the development of a vaccine for COVID-19 comes with a unique set of challenges because of how new the virus is.

“The information's trickling in, but there's so many question marks. There's definitely more question marks than answers at this point,” Ross said.

Despite initial testing in his lab, Ross said they are still unsure if the virus will return year after year or even mutate seasonally like the flu. He said, however, that the population as a whole will begin to build immunity as the virus spreads.

Another challenge facing the team is funding. The work Ross’ lab is doing for a COVID-19 vaccine is currently being funded by internal resources, but he said funding from the government will be needed for a longterm, sustained effort. 

The National Institutes of Health is reviewing applications from labs across the country, including his own, Ross said, requesting funds to continue their research for  COVID-19 vaccines, drugs and therapeutics.

He is optimistic that recent legislation related to coronavirus passed by Congress will trickle down to the National Institutes of Health and then be allocated to his team. 

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Still, Ross cautioned vaccine development is a long process. 

“While there's a lot of information being pumped out to companies making vaccines, you know, the long haul is that it's just the beginning,” Ross said. “Any vaccine that is made has to go through numerous rounds of safety testing and even in an emergency situation like this, although it can be expedited, there's still safety tests that have to be done. We certainly don't want to make anything worse.”

A normal process to develop a vaccine can take around ten years to develop. Ross believes it could realistically take two to three years before a vaccine for COVID-19 is available to the public.

For now, Ross said his advice for Georgians is to stay calm and avoid interacting with vulnerable populations such as the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.