CNY professor leading COVID vaccine trial

Stephen Thomas. Provided photo

SARANAC LAKE — A Trudeau Institute collaborator is leading a clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine that is so far showing 90% effectiveness.

Stephen Thomas, one of two fellows for the Saranac Lake-based biomedical research facility, has been named lead principal investigator for a phase-three clinical trial for a vaccine being developed by Pfizer and German company BioNTech. Trudeau Institute announced the news on Wednesday.

Thomas is a professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology and chief of infectious disease for SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. As a fellow at Trudeau Institute, he participates in research there as well.

Pfizer and BioNTech announced preliminary results of a late-stage clinical trial for its vaccine on Monday that suggests it’s more than 90% effective, according to the New York Times. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set a threshold of 50% efficacy for vaccines to be eligible for emergency authorization.

Thomas is working alongside Pfizer and BioNTech as the two companies share trial results with regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, later this month.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo hailed Thomas’ role in the trial Monday.

“New York’s medical experts are second to none, and from the very beginning of this pandemic, we have relied on their vast knowledge and expertise to inform our response. I’m glad Pfizer is doing the same,” Cuomo said in a statement. “It’s great news that Pfizer/BioNTech is seeing positive results from its vaccine trial, and I’m proud one of New York’s foremost infectious disease experts has been selected to lead its worldwide vaccine trial. On behalf of the family of New York, I would like to thank Dr. Thomas for his work fighting this invisible enemy.”

In a statement Monday, Thomas said his colleagues have worked hard to support companies such as Pfizer in the fight against COVID-19. More than 300 volunteers, out of about 44,000 participants, have been enrolled in the clinical trial by Upstate Medical.

“The Upstate team has worked incredibly hard to support Pfizer and their partners as we all try to find ways to stop this pandemic,” he said. “This hard work combined with the outpouring of support from our CNY (Central New York) community has put us in a position to be great contributors to the COVID vaccine develop effort.”

Thomas became Trudeau Institute’s first fellow in 2018. He’s worked with the institute on projects related to the Zika virus and other infectious diseases. He helped organize the institute’s 2018 Global Health Summit.

Trudeau Institute isn’t involved with Pfizer’s clinical trial, but its scientists have been researching the coronavirus.

“At Trudeau, we’ve seen firsthand the expertise that Stephen Thomas brings to solving our most vexing infectious disease challenges,” Trudeau Institute President and Director Atsuo Kuki said in a statement. “He combines tremendously deep experience rolling out vaccines for ominous global health epidemics with a fierce dedication to high-quality execution. We’re proud to see him recognized and congratulate him, as well as SUNY and SUNY Upstate, on the leadership they’ve shown in fighting this pandemic.”

Trudeau Institute has also helped the local hospital network, Adirondack Health, in the eight months since the pandemic was declared. Trudeau Institute has manufactured chemical reagents, enabling the hospital to increase the number of COVID-19 test samples it can send for processing. The institute has sanitized the hospital’s personal protective equipment, allowing things like N-95 masks to be reused in a time when the supply is scarce. The institute also helped the hospital open up a new rapid-testing lab.

“The news from Pfizer/BioNTech is very exciting, but we can’t let up,” Kuki said. “The sooner we develop additional vaccine candidates, the sooner the world can get back to normal. But before that happens, we need to remain vigilant, wear masks and expand our testing capabilities.”

In related news, the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, alongside the Vaccine Testing Center at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, announced on Tuesday that it has begun enrolling volunteers for a phase-three trial of a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Oxford University. This vaccine is separate from Pfizer’s; it would be manufactured by AstraZeneca. Among the first volunteers to receive the vaccine is Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, according to a news release.

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