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SLU’s Pestello: Mission guides efforts on pandemic

University takes action on vaccine and treatment research, housing plan

Griesedieck Hall on the campus of Saint Louis University is lit up every night in honor of essential workers, health care providers and all who continue to work toward a higher purpose and greater good during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
The announcement April 13 of a $750,000 gift to Saint Louis University to support research aimed at developing new vaccines for COVID-19 and other illnesses is just one of a number of the ways the university is combating the spread of the disease.

A 1977 graduate of SLU’s Medical School, Dr. Stephen C. Peiper, and Zi-Xuan “Zoe” Wang, his wife, gave $750,000 to SLU to support research aimed at developing new vaccines for COVID-19 and other illnesses. See sidebar for more information.

Saint Louis University President Fred Pestello said the need to help the community goes to the heart of the mission of a Catholic, Jesuit university.

“When we have decisions to make, we say, ‘What are our values, what is our mission, and make the decision accordingly,’” Pestello said.

SLU also is studying an investigational treatment for COVID-19, the disease causing the current coronavirus outbreak. The trial is supported by the National Institutes of Health.

When online learning began last month, the university implemented a consolidated housing plan, with input from public health experts, for students who were granted exemptions to live on campus for the remainder of the term. SLU made Reinert Hall available to providers and other staff from SLUCare and SSM Health who do not feel comfortable traveling home and, perhaps unknowingly, expose their families to COVID-19. Grand Forest Apartments have been designated for health care workers and other emergency personnel who need to isolate. The Village Apartments have been designated for students living on campus who need to isolate.

As one of the nation’s top Catholic research universities, SLU has a specialty in immunology and virology, Pestello said. “We’re fortunate to have some of the world’s leading experts on our faculty, and they’re working on this disease.”

SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development is a research facility that investigates vaccines and treatments for infectious diseases. One of only nine federally funded Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units, SLU is on the front lines in the fight against pandemics and global health crises. As a VTEU, the university can conduct phase 1 through 4 vaccine and treatment trials, including clinical studies in collaboration with partners from industry.

SLU has more than 40 members of the faculty across 20 departments working on vaccine development, Pestello said.

“We’re trying to use our resources to maximum advantage, from our scientists to our residence halls and everything in between, including what we do from a faith angle to support the region and beyond in this moment of need and crisis,” Pestello said.

In a letter to members of the Saint Louis University community in early April, Pestello wrote of the sacrifice of colleagues and alumni working as health care providers, or otherwise on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. He asked for prayers for health care workers.

In his letter, Pestello stated that “I am proud that we are able to serve those who serve our community, selflessly, every day. This pandemic reminds us how critical it is to serve however we can.”

Pestello said he’s impressed with how Saint Louis University is involved through medical practices in treating patients on the frontlines of the pandemic. And he’s impressed by the remote learning. “In both areas we’ve had to pivot dramatically,” he said.

He made the decision to transition to online instruction during spring break, and faculty and staff had just a week to prepare for it. “I am just in awe of how the school community rose to the occasion, literally transforming how we do education and in some areas the practice of medicine,” he said. “I’m more proud of the SLU community than I’ve ever been on both the educational side and the medical side, for realizing the significance of this crisis, the need to adapt and change, embracing it and supporting each other.”

Saint Louis University is accepting donations for funds that support students, faculty and staff in need as well as research efforts. “We appreciate that and appreciate prayers,” he said.

>> SLU research into COVID-19

Ken Oliff, vice president for research at Saint Louis University, states that discovery of truth and knowledge is part of the Catholic intellectual tradition. The COVID-19 pandemic brought that to the forefront, with studies on treatment and for a vaccine for COVID-19.

SLU is studying an investigational treatment for the disease causing the current coronavirus outbreak. The trial, which is supported by the National Institutes of Health, may be conducted in up to approximately 75 sites across the country and worldwide.

There are no treatments for the novel coronavirus, and SLU is testing what could be one of the first.

Currently patients with COVID-19 are treated for their symptoms, which can include fever, cough and breathing problems, but not for the virus itself. Those who are hospitalized and seriously ill also may receive advanced support for complications of the disease.

The study investigates the safety and effectiveness of remdesivir, an investigational intravenous anti-viral medication, in treating COVID-19. As new potential therapies emerge, they may be added to the study for testing based on new data. The study is not enrolling participants via inquiries from the general public.

A 1977 graduate of SLU’s Medical School, Dr. Stephen C. Peiper, and Zi-Xuan “Zoe” Wang, his wife, have given $750,000 to SLU to support research aimed at developing new vaccines for COVID-19 and other illnesses. This gift will establish a center in vaccine research to be called the Stephen C. Peiper and Zi-Xuan Wang Institute for Vaccine Science and Policy.

Peiper is the Peter A. Herbut professor and chair of the Department of Pathology, Anatomy and Cell Biology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and senior vice president for the Enterprise Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service Line of Jefferson Health System. Wang is the scientific director of the Molecular and Genomic Pathway Laboratory for the Jefferson Health System.

“As I studied the (SLU) Vaccine Center, I realized that it was second to none, a program that was a jewel in the crown of the institution,” Pieper said. “It is clear to me that it will be critical to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 in order to win this war.”

A clinical laboratory scientist, Wang is involved in the urgent work of COVID-19 testing. She has led COVID-19 testing programs and her laboratory has provided testing for the 14 hospitals in the Jefferson Health System.

Dr. Daniel Hoft, principal investigator of SLU’s federally funded Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit and director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at SLU, leads SLU’s vaccine research efforts. SLU’s work has supported the development and licensure of multiple vaccines that currently are in clinical use.

>> Tracking COVID-19

Christopher Prener, assistant professor of sociology at Saint Louis University, is tracking COVID-19 in Missouri with maps summarizing the latest available COVID-19 outbreak data from Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 project, the New York Time’s COVID-19 project, the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The initial three maps include the counties in Illinois and Kansas that are part of the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas. The maps are fully interactive. Clicking on a county will reveal some details about that place and visitors to the website can navigate around them just as they would with Google Maps.

To view the maps and data, visit www.bit.ly/2VvLToL.

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