COVID-19 Vaccine Development & Clinical Treatment

Irish Expertise Continues to Advance COVID-19 Vaccine Development & Clinical Treatment

By D. Rachael Bishop

Irish expertise continues to play a ground-breaking role in developing an effective COVID-19 vaccine and in treating patients. This was evident during a recent virtual discussion panel co-hosted by the Ireland America Science Forum with InDC.

“Dr. Gordon Joyce of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland and Dr. Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, are both advancing safe, effective vaccines to protect people from COVID-19,” said Dr. Deborah Brosnan, president and chair for the Ireland America Science Forum.

Vaccines, Policy and Public Health in the Continued Fight Against COVID-19 was the focus of a public virtual panel discussion on July 30 sponsored by the Irish Network-DC (IN-DC) and Ireland America Science Forum (IASF). Speakers included: Dr. Gordon Joyce, of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and Dr. William Dempsey, Jr, physician with The Wright Center for Community Health in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Joyce has developed therapeutics for several respiratory viral epidemics including HIV-1, Influenza, RSV, and MERS. A graduate of the National University of Ireland, Galway, Dr. Joyce is an expert in understanding structural biology. He has successfully produced the most detailed atomic level view of the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein binding domain – the part of the virus that binds to the lungs, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Military HIV Research Program.

“As soon as China released the DNA sequencing in January my group said, ‘Let’s start working on this,’” said Dr. Joyce. “We have recently advanced our lead vaccine to manufacturing and are ready for Phase I clinical trials. We anticipate having a safe vaccine by January 2021.”

The combination of deep expertise focused in one team and their decision to focus acutely on COVID-19 response has made all the difference in rapidly developing a vaccine that in a normal R&D scenario could have taken 10 years. Dr. Joyce also applauded other research efforts underway worldwide.

“In the U.S. alone you need more than 300 million doses,” said Dr. Joyce. “This is a colossal effort worldwide. It is invaluable that we have many different vaccines being developed. And we also do not know yet if we will need a different vaccine for children compared to adults, and we may need yet a different vaccine for the elderly. This is something we are still wondering to see.”

According to first-hand accounts by physician Dr. William Dempsey, there is an overwhelming need for a vaccine.

“I first started seeing patients with symptoms in January, in the early days of the pandemic,” said Dr. Dempsey. “A group of Scranton citizens went abroad on a bus tour, and of 46 people, 19 were diagnosed positive. Two have died. It’s devastating.”

Despite the fact that The Wright Center for Community Health plays a vital public health role for the community of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Dr. Dempsey was only given a limited number of PCR tests to test for COVID-19. Meanwhile, the larger laboratories like Quest and LabCorp are “overwhelmed by requests for testing.”

On the question of antibody tests, Dr. Dempsey said he is concerned about their efficacy. “We need a better immunoglobulin IgG test. Currently we don’t have this. What we have will tell you quantitatively whether you have antibodies, but the test doesn’t tell us much qualitatively. We can’t tell patients whether their immune systems have the needed antibodies to protect them from further COVID-19 exposure.”

Dr. Dempsey said it is vital to the public peace of mind that therapeutics be done carefully, thoroughly and fully in compliance with U.S. FDA approval, such as the research underway in Dr. Joyce’s lab.

“I pray to God Dr. Joyce comes up with a vaccine,” said Dr. Dempsey.

In a previous statement published by, Dr. Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland praised the intense level of international collaboration around COVID-19 and said the research was moving much faster than occurred with Ebola.

“The coronavirus is no match for international science, the real question is when.”

D. Rachael Bishop is a science journalist and communications professional based in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Look for her on LinkedIn.