It was no small triumph for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette this year when it was able to claim its specific place in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — the first one to claim Food and Drug Administration approval.
Jane Fontenot, a researcher at UL Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center, published her account of the university’s role in that large, life-saving effort in the peer-reviewed journal Nature early this year.
She wrote that rhesus macaques at the New Iberia facility were immunized as part of non-human primate clinical trials of the vaccine. The UL Lafayette staff at that facility administered vaccines, collected samples and observed the animals for problems — evidence of pain, elevated temperatures, loss of appetite or other concerning symptoms — that might have affected people who took the vaccine. A month later, the animals were exposed to COVID-19 under controlled conditions by researchers in Texas. The rest of the story we now know.
Ramesh Kolluru, vice president of research, innovation and economic development, said Pfizer was able to bring the vaccine to market speedily at least in part because of its relationships to facilities like NIRC and universities like UL Lafayette.
But UL Lafayette has not settled for just one share of the responsibility in fighting COVID-19 during the pandemic. The university wasn’t ready to rest on that laurel.
The university opened its COVID-19 testing and vaccination site on campus; Gov. John Bel Edwards visited a few days later to tout the good work. Kolluru said that UL wanted to be of service not only in the laboratory but also in the field in the fight against the COVID-19. That battle is on, even as masking appears to be reducing the spread of the delta variant.
To that end, and at the request of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a UL Lafayette team used “data-driven and science-based” research to help identify for the city of New Orleans how it might get the vaccine to people who would be most hard-pressed in finding the shot available.
Kolluru said the UL Lafayette team also ID’d which workers in New Orleans would be most critically needed and when workers might be returned to work during the four phases of recovery. It also worked “hand in glove” with the mayor and her staff to help them understand data-driven actions that would slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus. New Orleans’ efforts to combat the coronavirus have been admirable.
All of these efforts reflect UL Lafayette’s mission of producing research that matters: “Research for a reason,” is how the university defines that work. It drives home the point that scholars in Louisiana — faculty, researchers and students — at their best are committed to the task of making our world better. At their most effective, they do not operate in isolation or in a vacuum, but together for the greater good.
“Public universities are a public good,” Kolluru said. “We do research for a reason. For us, there is nothing more impactful, meaningful or urgent.”
Researchers exercise their missions across myriad fields and to many good ends. Sometimes, the Big Man or Big Woman on Campus is not found on the playing field or leading a parade. Sometimes, we might find him or her working in the library or the lab.