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March 12, 2020

Farmington biotech teams with Yale to pursue COVID-19 vaccine

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever CaroGen CEO Bijan Almassian (right) in his UConn Health incubator lab.

Farmington-based CaroGen and scientists from Yale have begun work on a vaccine targeting the coronavirus responsible for the ongoing global outbreak of COVID-19 disease.

The team is basing its approach on previous work done by CaroGen co-founder and scientific chairman, John Rose, in the wake of the global SARS epidemic of 2003. The coronaviruses that cause SARS and COVID-19 are genetically similar.

Rose, who is director of the Yale School of Medicine’s molecular virology program, worked with others to develop a vaccine shown to be protective in animal models against the SARS virus. 

“The foundation for a novel COVID-19 vaccine was established in our laboratory over a decade ago,” Rose said in a statement. “We hope to select candidate(s) for human clinical studies within the next several months.”

However, fully developing a vaccine and winning approval to use it in human patients could take three years, if everything goes well, CaroGen CEO Bijan Almassian told HBJ on Thursday.

“Vaccine development and approval is longer and more expensive and the bar is higher, as they will be tested in healthy people,” Almassian said.

Three years could be well past the peak of the current outbreak in the U.S., which some have estimated to occur this summer. However, Almassian said there’s likely to be a need for a vaccine in the future.

“It could possibly come back next winter after being silent during the summer,” he said of the virus.

COVID-19 isn’t the first outbreak that has spurred CaroGen to take action. The company, which is developing vaccines and immunotherapies for cancer and infectious diseases including hepatitis B, planned a collaboration with Yale and UConn in 2016 on a Zika virus vaccine, after a global outbreak that began the year prior. 

The effort ultimately didn’t have legs, Almassian said, citing steep competition from other Zika vaccine developers, a lack of funding, and the fact that the epidemic officially tailed off just weeks after the vaccine collaboration was announced.

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March 12, 2020

If anyone can find a vaccine its Yale virology!

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