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Pa. gives Wistar $4 million to study COVID-19 in vulnerable populations

The research will focus on older residents, people who are HIV-positive, and people with opioid use disorder.

Dario C. Altieri is president and CEO of the Wistar Institute.
Dario C. Altieri is president and CEO of the Wistar Institute.Read more

The state of Pennsylvania has given the Wistar Institute a $4 million grant to study how COVID-19 affects certain at-risk populations, plan for future pandemics, and study new treatments.

The grant, which was supported by Gov. Tom Wolf, came from the state legislature and Department of Human Services (DHS). It was announced Tuesday at a press conference.

Dario C. Altieri, Wistar president and CEO, lauded the grant as a “successful bipartisan effort.” He said he hoped that “this will be a model for how we come together “ to “put the science first and … tackle big problems.”

DHS executive deputy secretary Andrew Barnes said the Wolf administration’s interest in high-risk populations predated the pandemic, but has grown as COVID-19 has killed 33,000 Pennsylvanians.

“We have a responsibility to use the experience [of the pandemic] to better understand what we can do to better protect vulnerable Pennsylvanians,” he said.

State Rep. Wendi Thomas, a Bucks County Republican, emphasized that work at research organizations like Wistar benefits the life sciences industry. “The investment we make here will help all Pennsylvanians,” she said.

Among the at-risk groups included in the grant-funded research are people with HIV and those with drug addiction. This can include people who are active users of opioids or stimulants or people who are taking medications for opioid use disorder, said Luis Montaner, Wistar’s vice president of scientific operations. Wistar will work with Philadelphia FIGHT, Prevention Point, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

» READ MORE: People with substance-use disorder may be at higher risk for breakthrough COVID cases, study finds

The goal of that funding is to help the state better understand levels of immunity in those groups, better serve them during the current pandemic and plan for future public health emergencies.

With the help of its partners, Wistar plans to recruit 512 people, including 96 healthy individuals, for that study. “It is only because of established links to the community that we can do this,” Montaner said.

There is reason to believe that immunity may wane more quickly among drug users and those with HIV, but lifestyle differences could also expose these groups to the coronavirus more frequently and thus boost immunity, Montaner said. These groups have not previously been studied.

The grant will also support Wistar’s ongoing efforts to create “second-generation” treatments and longer-lasting vaccines against COVID-19 and to improve preparedness for new pathogens, Montaner said. Wistar is currently testing three antiviral compounds. Today’s vaccines may have limited effectiveness against new variants of the coronavirus and may need frequent boosters. “It’s clear that we may need other types of vaccine interventions,” he said.

Montaner said parts of the project likely will be completed by June 30 of next year.