UT Austin researcher to answer COVID-19 vaccine questions in virtual town hall

Texas Coronavirus Vaccine

AUSTIN (KXAN) — One of the key researchers in the development of several coronavirus vaccines will be taking questions from the crowd this week.

University of Texas at Austin researcher Jason McLellan will join dozens of virologists, immunologists and scientists answering people’s questions and concerns in a panel through the American Society for Virology.

“How well they work, and are they working against the variants? And if we still have to wear masks, then why even get vaccinated?” he told KXAN he’s regularly asked. “Those are very legitimate questions that people have.”

His team of researchers at UT worked around the clock after the 2019 novel coronavirus began to spread in the United States, before making a “critical breakthrough” and creating a 3D atomic-scale map of the part of the virus that attaches itself to human cells — the spike protein. The map was an essential step for other researchers to develop COVID19 vaccines.

His team’s engineering has now been used in the development of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which have all received Emergency Use Authorization. It’s currently being utilized in the development of the NovaVax vaccine.

McLellan said he’s particularly preparing himself for questions about the speed at which the vaccines were developed.

“Were corners cut? Was safety sacrificed?” he explained.

He has his answer at the ready: no.

McLellan said much of the work was already completed, as he and others had been studying coronaviruses for years before the term started making headlines in early 2020.

“Vaccine development typically takes a decade or so. A lot of that — the first couple of years — might be trying to figure out what’s the best antigen: What part of this virus or bacterium do we want to use as the antigen or antigens to inject into somebody?” he explained. “All of that we were able to do really back in 2015 and 2016, when we were working on the MERS coronavirus and the first SARS coronavirus. So, all of our engineering and research? We already had all that.”

The other factors at play, he says, were the finances. Whereas vaccine trials are typically very costly, McLellan noted the money given out to pharmaceutical companies and other financial incentives through Operation Warp Speed.

He believes vaccine hesitancy has increased since his years studying MERS or the first SARS coronavirus.

“The side effects for these vaccines aren’t really any different than the side effects for any of the other vaccines we either get as children or throughout our life as adults,” he said. “I think we’re just hearing a bit more about them.”

Last week, the UT College of Natural Sciences shared photos of McLellan receiving the very vaccine he played a role in developing.

Jason McLellan, researcher who proved instrumental in mapping “spike protein” used in COVID-19 vaccine development, gets his shot. (Photo provided by UT College of Natural Sciences, via @McLellan_Lab on Twitter)

Still, he knows many people will be more difficult to convince and some concerns will be harder than others to assuage.

“The most concerning part about vaccine hesitancy is maybe the misinformation — the degree of misinformation that can spread online,” he explained. “it’s some of these other things that seem really far out there.”

He told KXAN he worries about “echo chambers” on social media reinforcing false ideas, but hopes this series of town halls will help explain how the vaccines work and clear up some of the misinformation about how they were developed.

“That’s what we’re really excited to talk with people about,” he said, “To try and decrease some of the hesitancy and explain everything that went into the development of these vaccines.”

The virtual panel will be held on Wednesday, March 31 at 7 p.m. Central Time. To register, click here.

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