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Metro Detroit native who played critical role in COVID vaccine development gets his first shot

Posted at 4:58 PM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-31 20:37:20-04

(WXYZ) — Jason McLellan has turned into something of a pandemic rockstar.

McLellan, an Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, had been studying the spike protein in coronaviruses when the pandemic hit. Suddenly his lab's expertise and research became invaluable.

And now a year after we first shared the metro-Detroit native's story, McLellan finally got his first shot last week.

"People even came up to ask for selfies which was kind of surreal," McLellan said of his trip, on UT's campus, to get his vaccine shot.

"My wife, parents, and sister had all been vaccinated," he said, hinting at some of the irony that he was last in his family to get a "shot" at the vaccine his research had helped to lay the groundwork for.

"I’d been waiting, hoping to get the vaccine at some point, but knowing it’s important to wait my turn," McLellan said.

When the pandemic started, experts warned that it could take years before a vaccine was available. The fastest, at the time, had been a vaccine for the mumps in the 1960s. That took four years.

But thanks to the research from McLellan’s lab, within 90 days of mapping the spike proteins the clinical trials started. Now shots are getting into arms all over the world.

"We and others had already done a lot of that work years prior on different coronaviruses," he said.

Following the deadly MERS outbreak in 2013, McLellan and his team began looking into the structure and function of spike proteins.

"That way we can be ready for the next outbreak ten years later," he said of the decision to investigate the coronaviruses.

It ended up being less than 10 years. And when the pandemic hit the US last spring researchers were ready.

"In 2016 we came up with some modifications that you can make to spike proteins to help make them better vaccines," he said.

And while he is relieved to finally get the vaccine, McLellan’s coronavirus work is far from over.

"It’s unlikely we’ll be able to eliminate it," he said of COVID-19 and the current variants. With the virus — and strains like it — here for the long run, McLellan and his team are now working on a universal coronavirus vaccine. One that can protect us from COVID-19 variants, but also MERS and other bat coronaviruses that have yet to jump into humans.

"That way," he said, "we already have vaccines on hand in case there’s another coronavirus outbreak in the future."