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OU Health Sciences Center professor discusses COVID-19 vaccine progress, possible impacts on flu season

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Hildebrande Interview 7/21

OU Health Sciences Center professor William Hildebrand in a livestream interview July 21.

The expedited development and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccination is being researched by OU Medicine faculty, according to a July 21 OU Medicine livestream interview.  

OU Health Sciences Center professor William Hildebrand said since March, he has collaborated with OU faculty and third-party biotech companies to test patients who have developed antibodies to COVID-19 and detect the portion of the virus remaining after an antibody response. He said his team has recently identified segments of the virus they wish to target, and they are in the process of deciding which to include in the vaccine. 

Hildebrand said it is unclear when his team’s vaccine will be ready, and opinions regarding the time table for the release of a national vaccine differ greatly. He said Operation Warp Speed — a partnership of federal agencies aiming to quickly deliver 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine — has decreased the required time to create an effective vaccine to around one to two years. 

“Multiple groups are … getting government money, and they're not only testing the vaccine, but they're making (millions of doses of the) vaccine and getting it ready for delivery,” Hildebrand said. “So that's why these (vaccines) could … hit the market sooner than one expects, because this has never been done before.” 

Although the vaccine is being produced at a more rapid rate, Hildebrand said the quality of the vaccine should not be substantially affected. He said he hopes as people continue to be tested, adverse reactions to the vaccine will be detected and fixed. 

“With anything practiced in the clinic … you’re doing a risk-reward weight system,” Hildebrand said. “With Pfizer and Moderna (vaccines), 70 percent of people report headaches, a fever and some soreness at the site of delivery. Most of these responses have been mild.” 

Hildebrand said the general public should refrain from worrying about the virus mutating and adjusting itself to avoid vaccines. Although he said there are variations in the virus, the vaccine strategy has not been affected. 

“All humans change, viruses change (and) all living organisms change — some at a quicker speed (and) some at a slower speed,” Hildebrand said. “We do see some variations in this COVID-19 virus, but its enzymes have a proofreading capacity, which means that there’s not extensive alterations or mutations.” 

As flu season draws closer, Hildebrand said the impacts of COVID-19 on influenza are a further question of concern. He said watching the Southern Hemisphere as it develops flu vaccines will be important in discerning how the two viruses interact. 

“Right now … they’re looking for what virus strains of influenza are circulating, and they’re preparing the vaccine,” Hildebrand said. “So my intuition tells me that they’re preparing the influenza vaccine for this fall … and that will be prepared not knowing when a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready and not knowing if the precautions we’re taking with masks and enhanced sanitation are going to help prevent the spread of influenza.” 

Hildebrand said there are numerous unknowns for this vaccine, which makes it difficult to form expectations concerning its future success or failure. 

“We don't know what kind of protection you're going to get from these (vaccines),” Hildebrand said. “We don't know if the elderly will be protected, if the young will be protected … if a different vaccine will need to be made for one population versus another. … Sometimes the first vaccine can be quite effective and save many lives, but it might be augmented by a different vaccine at some point in the future.” 

Despite a lack of consensus concerning how to best combat COVID-19 via vaccine, Hildebrand said this virus spreads quickly and can infect people through limited exposures. He said COVID-19 has impacted people’s health and has caused an economic downturn, which is why he believes the development of a vaccine should be a high priority. 

“This COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us to go back and relook at how we did polio (and) influenza vaccines (and) reexamining what we've done for failures and successes in the past,” Hildebrand said. “Scientifically and clinically, I think it’s very interesting to follow this (vaccine), and I’m happy I can be at OUHSC and somehow try and contribute to it.” 

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