Upstate Medical University vaccinologist who played key role in Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine now working to develop vaccines for heroin addiction, influenza, and new treatments for staph infections, HIV. He recently was honored by NYS Senate for his work
By Chris Motola
Q: You recently were awarded the Liberty Medal from the NYS Senate for your work on the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us a bit about your work.
A: I’m the interim chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at Upstate and the director of the Institute of Global Health and Translational Science.
Q: So you’ve been pretty busy lately.
A: Yes. In the beginning, as early as January 2020, the university was incredibly busy planning for the arrival of COVID to Central New York, because we knew it had reached New York City and would soon be Upstate. Once we had established plans for how to best care for our patients and keep our staff safe, then the vaccine and treatment trials started and the Global Health group would end up playing key roles in testing the Pfizer vaccine and bringing experimental treatments to the hospital. Now we are responding to surges associated with different variants, continuing with vaccine trials, and trying to re-establish the portion of our research portfolio which was paused.
Q: After two years, what do you consider the successes, missteps and surprises? It’s not necessarily over yet, but what would your postmortem be on this period?
A: I think one of our collective successes was that the region was quick to acknowledge the problem was here, and that it was going to be a problem. Sometimes people have trouble doing this. I felt like there was pretty good alignment between the university and our regional and community leaders about what we had to do to try and reduce the effects of COVID. I think we did a good job at developing plans to reduce the spread of COVID, find infections, maintain our PPE supplies, and then execute those plans. The Global Health group did a great job testing the Pfizer vaccine and different experimental therapies. There is also Dr. Frank Middleton, his group, and the Quadrant Biosciences partnership, which invented an excellent and high throughput saliva-based COVID diagnostic test. This test was a game changer for SUNY and the system’s ability to bring students back to campus and the classroom.
Q: What could have been improved?
A: As far as what could have been improved, this is not so much a local comment as a national one: I think we could have done a better job communicating important health, science and medical information to the public. I think people were often confused about their individual risk of infection, the outcomes of infection and how to best avoid infection. Information about vaccination and wearing masks was also confusing at times. Communicating health information is a very specific skill and expertise, and most people in science and medicine don’t have it. When you’re not effective at communicating it creates information voids, and the voids get filled by misinformation, and people can make bad decisions as a result.
Q: In terms of communication, how do you go about coordinating teams and information globally?
A: My role as the coordinating principal investigator for the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine trial is not an operational position. Meaning, I’m not actually coordinating the different sites participating in the trial, this is accomplished by Pfizer and Pfizer’s partners. My role, in addition to leading the Upstate site, is to be an external reviewer of the data, which will be submitted to regulatory agencies for consideration of emergency use authorization or licensure. Coordinating principal investigators provide a fresh set of eyes and help to identify any potential questions about the data or how to interpret the data.
Q: Rochester tends to get the glory when it comes to research in Upstate New York, but there’s clearly important research being done in Syracuse. What do you think the state of research in Syracuse is like right now? Has it been rising in that regard?
A: Yes, I think so. It’s one of the reasons I came here. Dr. Tim Endy was the infectious diseases chief at Upstate and recruited me here, as well as a number of other people. His vision was to build a robust clinical research program. Upstate has always had a number of very successful individuals, but we really wanted to build a research platform which could increase the number of research opportunities for everyone. This is what the Global Health group has been doing the last 10 years or so. We now have over 50 people in the Global Health group and have more than 10 active projects at any given time. We are working on developing COVID vaccines and drugs, conducting community-based trials following COVID survivors, developing tests for Lyme disease, developing vaccines for heroin addiction and influenza, exploring treatments for staph infections, testing new therapies for HIV, and advancing new educational opportunities for medical students and doctors in the US and abroad.
Q: How accurate is Dr. Middleton’s saliva based COVID test compared to the nose swab I think almost all of us have had the pleasure of experiencing by now?
A: As accurate, if not more. What is great about this test is not only can it detect even very small amounts of virus in saliva, but because of how it is collected, preserved, and tested, it is very convenient, stable, can be easily and safely shipped, is high throughput, and there are a number of different tests which can be performed on the sample.
Q: Are you working on any additional research involving mRNA vaccines? Either for COVID-19 or other conditions?
A: Yes, we’re executing an influenza vaccine trial with Pfizer. The technology is also being applied by numerous companies to other diseases such as HIV and Zika. One thing people don’t necessarily understand about mRNA is that it’s not a brand-new technology. It’s been around for about 30 years, has been in numerous human trials, but never had the opportunity which COVID provided to show that it could work. You’ll be hearing a lot more about mRNA.
Name: Stephen J. Thomas, M.D.
Position: Director of the Institute for Global Health and Translational Science and interim chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at SUNY Upstate Medical University
Hometown: Colonie, New York
Education: Albany Medical College
Affiliations: SUNY Upstate Medical University
Current hospital privileges: Upstate University Hospital, Crouse Hospital, VA Medical Center
Family: Wife (Erica); son (Charles), son (Cormac, deceased), daughter (MacLane);
Hobbies: music (jazz); lake life (camp, swimming, boating); golf