Interview"We have to work better; next outbreak could be even worse'

Racing for a coronavirus vaccine, Boston scientist hopes someone beats him to it

Israeli-American Dr. Ofer Levy heads PVP, which is among 40 research groups aiming to trample COVID-19. As lives hang in the balance, his work focuses on the elderly

Ofer Levy heads the Precision Vaccines Program (PVP) at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he is working on a coronavirus vaccine. (Courtesy Ofer Levy)
Ofer Levy heads the Precision Vaccines Program (PVP) at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he is working on a coronavirus vaccine. (Courtesy Ofer Levy)

BOSTON — The Precision Vaccines Program (PVP) at Boston Children’s Hospital is working on developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. PVP head Dr. Ofer Levy says that among the worldwide vaccine efforts, his group is uniquely focused on a solution for the elderly, a population Levy defines as age 65 or older.

“Vaccines are not one size fits all,” Levy told The Times of Israel via conference call on Monday. “Immune response varies with age.” He said that the elderly are “at greatest risk of severe infection,” and thus he is focusing on this age group.

A physician and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, Levy and his fellow researchers have been working on a vaccine since mid-January. He estimated that over 40 separate groups are working on vaccines, but as of press time, none are approved.

“It’s wide open,” Levy said.

Some groups, such as Moderna, are working with RNA; others, like Sanofi, with DNA. Levy’s group is focusing on adjuvants, or molecules that will boost a response to a vaccine. The plan is for the vaccine to combine the right adjuvant with a part of the coronavirus called the spike protein.

Currently doing preparatory work on mice, the researchers aim to collect blood samples from elderly human volunteers and test adjuvants outside the body. Levy anticipates to begin this testing in a matter of weeks.

Ofer Levy says his team is looking for the right adjuvant to combine with the coronavirus spike protein to create a vaccine which will be tested on mice. (Courtesy Ofer Levy)

“We’re hoping that within a few weeks, we’ll have a read on which adjuvant is best, that we can feed into the vaccine effort,” Levy said. A diagram he provided indicates that this effort will continue to include mice, with a monitoring of the antibodies they use to fight the coronavirus.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Levy said that work on a coronavirus vaccine owes a debt to past efforts against infectious diseases, citing the work of Peter Hotez’s Baylor University group toward a SARS vaccine earlier this century.

“There tends to be a tremendous attraction of attention during an outbreak,” Levy said. “When it’s over, everybody’s like, ‘Thank God,’ they go back to their lives. People could lose sight of the fact we need an ongoing involvement in public health infrastructure. That’s really important.”

When it’s over, everybody’s like, ‘Thank God,’ they go back to their lives

With Hotez’s work on SARS, Levy said, “by the time there was a vaccine, the outbreak was over. People said it was a waste of money. But they built a vaccine. With the work they did, our response this time has been much faster.”

Hotez and his Baylor colleague Maria Bottazzi are among those who have assisted Levy’s current efforts — in their case, by providing antigens from the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the Baylor College of Tropical Medicine, discusses the Zika virus on June 1, 2016. (AP Photo/John Mone)

Asked how long immunization would last should his vaccine be successful, Levy wrote in an email, “We would hope to develop vaccines that induced protective immunity that lasted at least a year but optimally one that would protect for up to ten years. Ultimately we need clinical trials to demonstrate the durability of immunity.”

All about the yichus

From science to art, Levy’s family has enriched the world over multiple generations. His grandfather mapped the State of Israel, his great-uncle was a celebrated Dutch poet and scientist, and his parents have contributed to Israeli art and music.

Levy’s interest in science comes from early in life thanks to his famous grandfather and great-uncle — respectively, Akiva Jaap Vroman and Leo Vroman. Both were Dutch Jews who survived World War II en route to extraordinary careers.

Akiva Jaap Vroman is recalled by his grandson as a Holocaust refugee and geologist who made the first detailed maps of the State of Israel and won the Israel Prize. Leo Vroman was held by Japan as a prisoner of war; his postwar career included being both a scientist and artist, renowned as “one of Holland’s most famous poets,” Levy said.

“I worked with both — looking for fossils with my grandfather in the Israeli desert, and doing molecular research with Leo,” Levy said.

Born in New York City, Levy holds dual United States and Israeli citizenship. His parents, both Israelis, have also made their mark, in the world of the arts. His father is artist Benjamin Levy, and his mother is musician and conductor Hanna (Vroman) Levy. A painter and sculptor, Benjamin Levy has had work exhibited at such venues as the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Yeshiva University Museum.

Hanna Levy directed the tribute to assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at Madison Square Garden, and wrote a cello and piano piece, “Eretz,” to commemorate Israel’s 50th anniversary that included a lament in Rabin’s memory. Benjamin and Hanna Levy live in the Ein Hod artists’ colony near Haifa.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful artists’ colony up north,” Ofer Levy said, adding that he visits twice a year.

Levy is a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Yale University and the NYU School of Medicine. His wife, Sharon Levy, is a pediatrician who also works at Children’s Hospital. They have been in Boston for over 20 years. He calls Children’s Hospital “a great environment for research.”

For the foreseeable future, Ofer Levy and his team will be researching a coronavirus vaccine, as will other teams around the world.

“I wish them the best,” he said. “I hope we’re scooped. It’s no joke. People are dying at a daily rate now. We’re working as hard as we can in a difficult situation.”

As he said, “we have to work quicker, better. Sooner or later, the next outbreak could be even worse.”

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