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Coronavirus: Meet the Irish immunologist working around the clock on a Covid-19 vaccine


Research: Dr David Dowling (left) with programme director Dr Ofer Levy

Research: Dr David Dowling (left) with programme director Dr Ofer Levy

Research: Dr David Dowling (left) with programme director Dr Ofer Levy

It's 5.45am in Boston and Bray native Dr David Dowling is already a few hours into his working day.

On top of his day job trying to make vaccines to fight two of the biggest pandemics witnessed in the past 100 years, the Dublin City University graduate is now also a stay-at-home dad.

Schools and childcare centres in America have closed as a result of the rapid spread of Covid-19, and now Dr Dowling is having to balance developing a vaccine, social distancing and minding his two children.

"I got up at 2.45am, I'll work until about 11.45am and then I've to go home and look after my kids - I'm doing the early shift and my wife, who is also a scientist, will do the late shift," he told the Irish Independent.

Dr Dowling is a research associate with the precision vaccine programme at Boston Children's Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

The 37-year-old graduated from DCU with a degree in biotechnology in 2005 and went on to obtain a PhD there in immunology, vaccinology and parasitology in 2009.

"I finished my PhD at a time when the financial world imploded and that meant I was told there were no jobs for me in Ireland, but I got two job offers in Harvard and Yale," he said.

"I was living through the Celtic Tiger years on a wage of around €14,000 while everyone around me was building houses. It was bizarre... my life seems to be shaped by geopolitical disasters."

About nine months ago, his team at Boston Children's Hospital received a €10m federal government grant to help develop an influenza vaccine for elderly people and children.

However, the Co Wicklow man had been keeping a close watch on coronavirus developments in China, and three months ago his team got government approval to turn it into a dual project.

There are now dozens of projects worldwide working around the clock to create a coronavirus vaccine, but Dr Dowling is co-leading a project which is specifically targeting the most vulnerable in society - the elderly.

Older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with Covid-19, according to the World Health Organisation.

Together with Dr Ofer Levy, director of the precision vaccines programme at the hospital, Dr Dowling is designing a coronavirus vaccine that uses special molecules to boost the immune system.

The coronavirus gets its name because each cell is covered with spiky formations that make it look like a crown, or in Latin 'corona'. These are called spike proteins.

The vaccine will use the virus's spike protein along with known vaccine adjuvants - small molecules that increase a patient's immune response.

He and Dr Levy's team have taken blood samples from patients aged between 65 and 93, are separating their white blood cells and testing different adjuvants to see which work best.

The unique vaccine will build on vaccines from prior coronavirus outbreaks and work to make them more effective.

"I reached out to Dr Peter Hotez at Texas Children's Hospital and we got his Sars antigen from the 2003 outbreak," Dr Dowling said.

"He made a vaccine and never got it all the way into clinical trials and ran out of funding as it [Sars] wasn't an issue any more.

"So using the current Sars vaccine and mixing it with our best adjuvant, we hope it can make a difference."

As for a timeline on when the vaccine may be ready, Dr Dowling says it largely depends on funding.

"I spent 12 hours filling out a grant application for this coronavirus project, when that time could be spent far more practically," he said.

Dr Dowling thinks developing a vaccine is imperative, as he believes coronavirus could become a seasonal virus.

"I do believe that it may have been circulating for a long time and has only come to the forefront now," he said.

"Right now we are heading towards the peak of it, people are social distancing and we'll see it relax coming into summer, but there is a distinct possibility it could come back again in winter.

"That's why we have to keep working and can't take time off. I have great confidence in my colleagues and the US government that we can push through to develop a vaccine."

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