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Mount Pearl-born researcher says a COVID-19 vaccine could be close

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Dr. Stephen Walsh is part of a Boston-based team that's done promising research and is in the final phase of human testing

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Canada’s top doctor has warned Canadians not to assume a COVID-19 vaccine will see an end to public-health measures such as mask-wearing and physical distancing.

But a medical researcher from Mount Pearl is not so sure.

Dr. Stephen Walsh is on a team in Boston that’s in the final phase of human testing on a promising COVID-19 vaccine that may be a first of its kind.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters earlier this month that management of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue for at least a year.

“(We are) certainly planning for the longer term of the next two to three years during which the vaccine may play a role. But we don't know yet," she said.


“If we do a little bit better than the flu vaccine, then we’ll be able to declare a success. It would still be a very serious disease, but our society lives with influenza.” — Dr. Stephen Walsh


Walsh told The Telegram he’s “very optimistic” that U.S. vaccine research being funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health will produce a positive result within months.

“The specific vaccine that we’re testing right now is one made by Moderna,” said Walsh, an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “They’ve been in the news, and appropriately so, because they’re the first one out of the gate because their vaccine is effective to manufacture.”

The first two phases of vaccine research involve lower numbers of human participants and deal primarily with laboratory results, side effects and dosage adjustment.

The final phase of testing on the Moderna product, which involves 30,000 participants around the U.S., will provide the final statistical answer as to whether it’s an effective vaccine.

They’ll give an initial shot of the vaccine, and then a booster 30 days later.

“Then, we’re going to start counting coronavirus cases. And once we see a statistically significant difference between the two groups, we’ll declare success, or we’ll declare failure.”

However, success does not have to mean perfection. Walsh said.

“If we do a little bit better than the flu vaccine, then we’ll be able to declare a success,” he said. “It would still be a very serious disease, but our society lives with influenza.”

Walsh says that amount of protection might allow public-health officials to loosen restrictions a lot more.

“If it’s as good as the flu shot, then we really can make a difference in hospitalizations, illness, make a difference in the quarantine, maybe lighten up on the travel restrictions, maybe get rid of the masks,” he said.

That, of course, depends on the uptake by the population.


Dr. Stephen Walsh
Dr. Stephen Walsh


Unique biotechnology

The Moderna vaccine is unique in that it’s not a vaccine as such, but specially coded genetic material — called an mRNA sequence — that instructs a person's body to produce the vaccine.

“(It) triggers your muscle cells into becoming a vaccine factory. So you make the vaccine in your body when you get the shot,” Walsh said.

Although it’s a new type of product, it’s considered cheaper and safer, mainly because it does not rely on actual genetic material from the virus to manufacture.

It’s so new, in fact, that the Boston team has reached a milestone.

“There’s never been an RNA vaccine that’s made it to market,” Walsh said. “There’s never been one that’s made it to a Phase 3 study before.”

Waiting in the wings

If the Phase 3 trial wraps up by winter, distribution of it will not likely take long, Walsh said.

That’s because drug companies already produce millions of doses in advance in case they get the green light.

He said there are likely billions of doses of potential vaccine waiting in the wings around the world as well over 100 studies test their efficacy.

“If the vaccine is a flop, an awful lot of product is getting thrown out,” he said.

He admits there is evidence to suggest immunity to COVID-19 is not likely to last a lifetime, even for those who have contracted the disease.

“We think most of those folks are immune at least for a while. Whether a while is weeks, months or years, we don’t know yet.”

So life with COVID-19, as so many public-health officials have described the future, is a still reality.

“It’s really hard to imagine putting the genie back in the bottle, so to speak.”

Donel graduate, former Tely carrier

Walsh grew up in Mount Pearl and graduated from O’Donel High School in 1990.

“I actually delivered The Telegram back when it was The Evening Telegram,” he said with a laugh.

He went on to study at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and obtained his medical degree at McGill University before moving to Boston for post-doctoral work.

He said he doesn’t get back to Newfoundland often enough, and the pandemic has now made that trip impossible for the near future.

Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health for The Telegram

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