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Breakthrough research at UT Austin is protecting the world against COVID-19

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By The University of Texas at Austin

In the past year, scientists around the world have worked to respond quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Texas at Austin is among the top universities in the nation for pandemic research and has played a crucial role in protecting against the virus. Along with researchers at the National Institutes of Health, UT’s Jason McLellan and his team have made key discoveries, which major drug companies have used to develop vaccines.

McLellan, an associate professor of molecular biosciences, has focused on the structure of viruses, including the spike protein that makes up the outer surface of the coronavirus. He and his team observed that these spike proteins change their shape to attach to cells, infecting them. As COVID-19 emerged, McLellan’s team also created the first 3D atomic scale map featuring the spike protein. This map has helped other scientists understand the nature of the virus.

His team’s findings have led to the fastest vaccine development in history: The spike protein is being incorporated in many vaccines, including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which are 95% effective.

McLellan’s earlier research with other coronaviruses aided in the rapid production of COVID-19 vaccines. In 2016, a llama named Winter played an important part in McLellan’s coronavirus research while he was working with scientists at Ghent University in Belgium. Over a month and a half, Winter was injected with stabilized spike proteins from SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. Researchers then collected a blood sample and isolated antibodies that bound to each version of the spike protein. This helped McLellan’s team recognize that when the body senses the spike protein as a potential threat, it develops antibodies to prevent infection.

Coronavirus research has made progress, thanks to UT Austin’s access to technology and equipment funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. The Sauer Laboratory for Structural Biology’s ultra-low-temperature electron microscopes and the Texas Advanced Computing Center’s Frontera supercomputer continue to help researchers gain a better understanding of the disease and treatment.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has designated UT as a vaccine hub for Texas. The university will be allocated additional supplies of vaccine from the state, and is administering it in two doses to Phase 1A and Phase 1B individuals in accordance with federal and state guidance to keep the university community — and greater Austin — safe from COVID-19. Vaccinations for the rest of the population will be available at a later date, as determined by DSHS. UT’s proactive community testing, case information and other comprehensive information can be found at Protect Texas Together.

McLellan said he is “thrilled” to see that the vaccine, made possible because of his dedicated work, is being distributed across the nation.

“With Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna announcing 95% efficacy, it’s really ecstatic, and it’s great for the world.”

— Jason McLellan