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COVID-19 vaccine developed by Beth Israel and Johnson & Johnson enters early-stage trials

The testing in humans follows promising findings from a small study involving monkeys.

Dr. Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, said he hopes the experimental COVID-19 vaccine proves effective in humans, following an encouraging study involving monkeys.
Dr. Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, said he hopes the experimental COVID-19 vaccine proves effective in humans, following an encouraging study involving monkeys.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff


A COVID-19 vaccine developed by health care giant Johnson & Johnson and researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has shown promise in a study with rhesus macaque monkeys and has entered an early-stage clinical trial in people.

Dr. Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, said researchers were encouraged by the results of the monkey study, and he hoped the vaccine would prove effective in humans.

“We’re doing the human trials because we don’t know the answer,” he said. “We were very pleased with these results, and these data increase our optimism about the potential for this vaccine candidate.”

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The study was published Thursday in the journal Nature.

Testing of the vaccine started last week with volunteers in Belgium, some of whom are receiving a placebo. Testing also began this week at clinical trial sitesin the United States, including at Beth Israel. Ultimately, some 1,000 healthy volunteers will be tested in the early-phase trial worldwide.

In the study detailed in Nature, researchers gave seven slightly different experimental vaccines to 32 rhesus macaques, in groups of four to six monkeys. Each of the vaccines used a common cold virus to deliver a coronavirus antigen into cells to stimulate the immune system. Twenty other monkeys were injected with placebos.

After six weeks, all the monkeys were exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 by a swab inserted into the nose or the throat. All six experimental vaccines provided some level of protection from infection, but one of the vaccines — the one now being tested in humans — provided the most robust protection.

After a group of six monkeys received that vaccine, none of them had any detectable virus in their lungs after they were exposed to SARS-CoV-2. And only one of the six monkeys had detectable virus in its nasal cavity.

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“These data demonstrate robust single-shot vaccine protection against SARS-CoV-2 in nonhuman primates,” the study published in Nature said.

The researchers got the final results only about three weeks ago, Barouch said.

In contrast to a similar study published this week about another group of rhesus macaques that received an experimental messenger RNA vaccine developed by Cambridge-based Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, these monkeys received only one dose of the vaccine.

That could be a big advantage for the Beth Israel/Johnson & Johnson vaccine, given how expensive and difficult it is to provide a vaccine to hundreds of millions of people.

Barouch said he believes the vaccine developed by his hospital and Johnson & Johnson would provide far more robust protection if given in two doses. The clinical trial is testing both a single dose and double dose regimen.

The vaccine candidate produced by the New Jersey-based drug maker and Beth Israel is one of several that have received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Trump administration, which launched a program called Operation Warp Speed to speed vaccine development. Other experimental vaccines bankrolled by the federal government included those made by Moderna, AstraZeneca and Novavax.



Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com