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Inside the University of Texas at Austin lab where the leading COVID-19 vaccines were partially developed

The UT-Austin chemistry lab's essential work has been used in various coronavirus vaccines, and even in vaccines meant to combat respiratory syncytial virus
Credit: phonlamaiphoto - stock.adobe.com

AUSTIN, Texas — Since COVID-19 first started taking the world by hostage in late 2019, scientists across the globe have been working nonstop to unlock the virus' mysteries and to provide a blueprint for battling the contagious disease.

And some of the best work in the world on this front has been taking place inside a lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I wanted to go into science -- and specifically this field -- to try to contribute to vaccine development, to hopefully make or contribute to a vaccine that would one day be used," said Dr. Jason McLellan on this week's episode of Y’all-itics. "Yeah, to have our technology incorporated into all these different vaccines -- it’s more than five vaccines, it’s a career high -- it’s really exciting." 

Dr. McLellan holds the Robert A. Welch Chair in chemistry at UT-Austin, where he also serves as a professor of molecular biology. 

Now, the technology he and his team have developed is being used both in vaccines against RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which is especially dangerous to children and seniors, and in the leading vaccines against COVID-19.  

If you thought the development of a COVID-19 vaccine was fast, Dr. McLellan says that, because of the work they’ve done, they’ll be able to do it much quicker in the future -- even through means like delivering vaccines through a patch.

"The goals now are to try to go from genome sequence of a virus to manufactured vaccine in 100 days," he said. "It's about three months rather than 10. So, maybe in the future, you have a coronavirus emerge in Southeast Asia, you need a couple of months of masking and social distancing, and then everybody can get the vaccine that's tailored specifically for that virus."

Even though he works with some dangerous material inside his lab, Dr. McLellan told the Jasons that’s not even what truly scares him.

"What keeps me up at night mostly is the anti-vax and the misinformation campaign," he said. "That's actually most scary and deleterious to human health. If we had a similar sentiment and vaccine skepticism 50 years ago, we might not have eradicated smallpox, or polio. So, it's really unnerving."

Interestingly enough, Dr. McLellan actually put in a grant to the National Institutes of Health in 2017 in an effort to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine. 

Think about that for a second: That would have been three years before the pandemic even started. 

But McLellan now smiles when talking about how the effort was doomed.

"That did not receive very good scores," he said. "And the reviewer comments, you know, indicated that this work was not particularly impactful, coronavirus outbreaks are regionally contained to where they first emerged. So, that was fun."

McLellan even tweeted a screen shot of that rejection. No surprise, then: It since has become one his most liked tweets.

Be sure to listen to the rest of this fascinating conversation with one of the world’s most important scientists in this episode of Y’all-itics.

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