A look at one university’s key role in COVID vaccinations

University of Tennessee Health Science Center medical students and residents have all been trained to deliver the vaccine
By: | January 25, 2021
Students deliver COVID vaccines at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.Students deliver COVID vaccines at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Students and researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center are playing instrumental parts in the development of a vaccine and now, in vaccinating the campus community.

Pharmacy and nursing students, and medical and oral surgery residents have all been trained and are now vaccinating other residents and students on hospital rotations as well as campus first responders, and faculty who provide inpatient services.

The university’s vaccination teams have also begun vaccinating high priority groups in Memphis and Knoxville, and across the state.

On the development side, Pfizer-BioNTech used a process developed by Michael Whitt, an associate dean of the university’s Office of Medical Education and a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Biochemistry.


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Pfizer-BioNTech needed a way to test the inhibitory effects of the antibodies generated after vaccination on virus infection.

The company adopted Whitt’s “surrogate system” to reduce the risk to workers testing the vaccine. Whitt’s process uses a virus that primarily infects horses, cows, and pigs, and does not cause serious disease in humans.

More than 300 companies and individual research labs are using Whitt’s system.

Whitt’s lab is now generating more surrogate-reporter viruses containing the various S-protein mutants that have arisen in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and other countries.

“The hope is that the current vaccines will provide protection against these variants, but at this time we just don’t know,” Whitt said. “However, we can rapidly screen these new variants using our system to see whether this is the case or not.”


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