Close this search box.

Get our email updates

Stay up-to-date on the companies, people and issues that impact businesses in Syracuse, Central New York and beyond.


Thomas talks COVID-19 vaccine & Upstate’s role in trial

Dr. Stephen Thomas

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The chief of the infectious disease division at Upstate Medical University believes scientists will develop a successful vaccine to combat COVID-19.

But Dr. Stephen Thomas, chief of Upstate’s infectious disease division, says it will take time.

Upstate Medical University is involved in a clinical trial evaluating the “safety and performance” of a potential vaccine against COVID-19, and the medical school is seeking participants for the trial.


Upstate Medical is part of a national multi-center study to assess the efficacy of a vaccine from global pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE). No vaccines are currently available to prevent COVID-19, which has spread around the globe, but many are under development and/or in clinical trials. The World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic in March.

“You have a company like Pfizer and their partners who develop the vaccine and then they need to come to places like Upstate to actually recruit volunteers and give the vaccine to people, do the checkups, and to give the data back to the companies so that the companies can then understand whether the vaccine worked or not,” says Thomas, who spoke with CNYBJ on July 14.

The efficacy study is a “randomized, placebo-controlled, observer-blind study,” meaning some individuals in the study will receive a placebo and others a vaccine candidate. The majority of the study team will have no knowledge of which individuals are receiving the placebo or vaccine candidate, Upstate Medical said.

The decision to participate in such a trial is a “personal one,” but it has the “potential to benefit humanity,” Thomas notes.

“Individuals who volunteer for this study will help advance our understanding of whether this vaccine has the potential to protect people and work toward ending the pandemic,” Thomas says.

Study visits will take place in the clinical research unit of the Institute for Human Performance on the Upstate campus

Individuals interested in participating in the study, can call (315) 464-9869 or email for more information.

When asked how long it might take to develop a usable vaccine, Thomas says the answer has two parts.

“Having a vaccine in-and-of itself doesn’t do anything. Vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccination is what saves lives,” says Thomas. “Once you have the vaccine, you need to get it to the people that stand to benefit the most from the vaccine. And then those people need to actually take the vaccine, so there’s two different elements that have to happen.”

Is a successful vaccine possible?

When asked if he believes scientists will develop a usable vaccine for the coronavirus, Thomas replies, “I think so.”

He went on to explain that four different community acquired coronaviruses cause the common cold every fall. They cause about 30 percent of the colds, or the respiratory tract infections that people get every fall and winter.

He also noted the existence of the three severe coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-1, which caused the SARS outbreak; MERZ-CoV-1; and now, SARS-CoV-2. Science has yet to develop a vaccine for any of them yet, but Thomas thinks the reason a vaccine was never developed for the first two is that “they largely went away,” and interest in making a vaccine went away as well.

“This [virus] is not going away and interest is remaining. The federal government is going to spend billions of dollars on bringing a vaccine to the public. The funding is there. The interest is there. The will to do it is there,” says Thomas.

He also noted the participation of more than 75 groups that are trying to make a vaccine, and he has “no doubt” that science can develop a vaccine.

“It’s just the timeline that no one seems to be able to agree upon,” he adds.

Eligibility and participation

To be eligible for the Upstate Medical vaccine study, individuals must be in good health, be between the ages of 18 and 85, and be able to make a two-year commitment to the study. Volunteers will be required to provide blood samples up to two years after receiving the vaccine/placebo. Individuals might be seen up to 10 times during the two-year study period. The 24-month time frame for the study is “important to assess the safety and long-term immune response.”

Participants will be compensated and will not incur any expenses for their participation in the study, Upstate Medical said. People who have previously tested positive for COVID-19 are not eligible to participate in the study, the medical school adds.

During their first two study visits, participants will receive the study vaccine or placebo injection. Researchers will also collect nasal swabs to test for COVID-19 during these times. During the other study visits to follow, researchers will take blood samples.

For seven days after receiving the placebo/study vaccine, participants will be required to complete a daily e-diary (smart-phone application) recording any specific reactions.




Get our email updates

Stay up-to-date on the companies, people and issues that impact businesses in Syracuse, Central New York and beyond.