With Grant, Wistar Institute is Planning to Study COVID-19 in At-Risk Populations


The award given to the research institute by the state of Pennsylvania looks to delve deep in understanding vulnerable populations and taking some lessons away in addressing future potential pandemics.

The emergence of the Omicron variant as the predominant strain of COVID-19 happened in a matter of few weeks, and thus has reminded everyone we are not out of the woods with this virus yet. And even when we do eventually have a handle on this, there is going to be so much to learn from this experience that could inform us for the next potential pandemic.

Philadelphia, Pa-based Wistar Institute is a biomedical research institution that was awarded a $4 million grant by the state of Pennsylvania to study COVID-19including understanding the impact of the virus on certain at-risk populations and supporting the state’s preparation and emergency response planning for future pandemics.

Specifically, Wistar will study vulnerable populations such as seniors, people with an opioid use disorder, and those who are HIV positive. In addition, they will develop clinical trials with the 3 subgroups and 100 people per category.

In the announcement, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf stressed the importance of understanding at-risk populations. “This project will allow us to look more closely at the impacts of this pandemic on those among us who are more vulnerable to the greatest risks of the pandemic, and I am grateful for this partnership that will bolster Pennsylvania’s ability to embed lessons of the last two years in future planning and preparation.”

Luis Montaner, DVM, MSc, DPhil, vice president, Scientific Operations at the Wistar Institute, is leading the operation. One of the areas they are exploring is the ongoing vaccine strategies including boosters. Certainly this can play a big role in the current understanding of the Omicron variant and how much protection today’s vaccines play now.

“The current vaccines, although effective, require a lot of persistent monitoring of what are overall levels of immunity and when we should be revaccinated or reboosted,” Montaner stated. “I think we are all experiencing both the benefits and limitations of the current strategies that we have.” 

In thinking of about vulnerable populations, Montaner points out these people may be experiencing both benefits and challenges during the pandemic. “Perhaps they have higher exposure because of their lifestyle, so from one side you could argue that they could be naturally boosted by what would be a herd immunity type setting based on their demographic and lifestyle or you could also raise the fact they have other comorbidities and other factors that are eroding their immunological competency, and they become more vulnerable and we need to be more proactive to try and manage.”

Contagion spoke to Montaner and he provided further insights about the institute’s WINCORE COVID-19 program, the populations they plan to study, and pandemic preparedness.

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