Dr. Waithaka Mwangi

Waithaka Mwangi is part of a team of researchers working on a coronavirus vaccine.

While local health care providers work to treat the ongoing patients who have contracted the novel coronavirus, there also are folks in Manhattan actively working on preventative solutions.

Dr. Waithaka Mwangi, professor of diagnostic pathobiology at K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and his team of researchers are developing a vaccine candidate that could protect against COVID-19.

K-State in early July signed an agreement with Tonix Pharmaceuticals, which is a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company, to help with the process.

Mwangi invented the technology for the vaccine candidate and is directing the research. The vaccine candidate is based on a “new vaccine platform that his research team developed for bovine parainfluenza 3 virus (BPI3V), which is closely related to human parainfluenza 3 virus,” a K-State report said.

The team includes Huldah Sang, a doctorate student, Jian Yao, a research assistant, and Tori Matta, a veterinary biomedical science student, though Mwangi said they expect to add another doctorate student and a research scientist to help speed up the research process.

With COVID-19 a present concern in the immediate community, as well as throughout the world, Mwangi said there is a sense of ever-looming pressure to get a potential live-saving vaccine out to the public.

“It is challenging because this virus is unique and new knowledge is needed to better understand it to inform vaccine development,” Mwangi said. “It has also been challenging because we did not have dedicated funds to get the work done. Partnering with Tonix Pharma and support from K-State will enable us to fast track research. ... Given the current status of COVID-19 and the fact that there is no drug or vaccine available, this work needs to be fast tracked so that the vaccine candidates we have developed can be evaluated for their potential to safely induce protection.”

Mwangi said the team hopes to conduct pre-clinical studies in animal models in the fall and if those show promising data, it will support clinical studies in humans.

It can take about 10 years for a vaccine to be developed, tested and approved for deployment by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, especially depending on funding, but with the ongoing urgency of the coronavirus pandemic, Mwangi said he thinks vaccines related to preventing and treating the virus may be “fast tracked.”

“We are having a crisis and a promising vaccine candidate can be fast tracked to help manage the disease in humans,” Mwangi said. “We expect to generate strong pre-clinical data which will attract interest and support needed to progress to clinical trials.”

Mwangi said the best vaccine for the virus will be one that triggers protection at the mucosal surface, so the team’s vaccine candidate will be one sprayed in the nose to block the virus from infecting host cells and kill infected cells.

“In addition, the vaccine contains a molecule that promotes generation of long lasting memory,” Mwangi said. “This is important since it has been discovered that humans who have been exposed to the virus have short-lived immune memory.”

Mwangi moved to Manhattan in 2016 when he joined K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, first as an associate professor and graduate faculty member and now as a professor. He mainly researches vaccine development for the African Swine Fever Virus.

Mwangi previously was a professor at Texas A&M University and Washington State University. He also received his PhD from Washington State.

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