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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Academics & Research

UH professor working on COVID-19 vaccine

UH professor Shaun Zhang began research on a COVID-19 vaccine in February. | Gerald Sastra/The Cougar

UH professor Shaun Zhang began research on a COVID-19 vaccine in February. | Gerald Sastra/The Cougar

With coronavirus cases rising, UH biology and biochemistry professor Shaun Zhang is continuing his research with hopes of creating a COVID-19 vaccine.

After vaccine testing preparation began in early February, Zhang’s lab is currently in its second round of experiments. While testing has shown positive results, Zhang’s team still believes additional research needs to be conducted.  

“We have already completed the first round of preclinical animal testing and the results were quite encouraging,” Zhang said. “I think there is no doubt that more research is needed for any vaccine development.”  

Zhang’s lab could begin moving to clinical trials of the vaccine within the next six months to a year, depending on the results of the second round of testing work, according to Zhang. Meanwhile, it is unknown how many rounds of testing should be done.

“Even through the progress we’ve made in vaccine development, the vaccine won’t become available for at least a year, maybe longer,” Zhang said. 

This is not an ideal vaccine at this time, Zhang said. However, Zhang believes it could prove to be useful, and continuous market research is essential to improve the vaccine design. 

Zhang is currently trying to join forces with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to use their biosafety level four labs. Because COVID-19 is classified as a class three pathogen, it can only be handled in labs over biosafety level three.

UH cannot handle any live viruses on campus at this time.  

“One of the difficulties is that this is a new virus and there are a lot of unknown key components,” Zhang said. “We still know very little about the behavior of the virus.” 

When Zhang saw the coronavirus break out in his hometown of Wuhan, China earlier this year, he knew it was time to get to work on finding ways to stop the spread, he said.

“When (the coronavirus) first came out, I paid a lot of attention to it for the reason that I’m a virologist, and also the reports came from the place I was born and worked for many years,” Zhang said. 

Moving forward, Zhang recommends airing on the side of caution and says everyone can get infected if not properly protected. Protection includes face masks, social distancing and personal hygiene. 

“I don’t believe the virus will go away, I think it will stay with us for the time being so individual protection is important and I can not emphasize that enough, don’t take this lightly,” Zhang said. 

Due to the urgency of a coronavirus vaccine, Zhang has not been able to prioritize his other research.

“My main research interest is on developing a virus killing agent,” Zhang said. “For the moment COVID-19 has overwhelmed anything else and has impacted a lot of research not directly related to (COVID-19), which is very unfortunate.” 

For more of The Cougar’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

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