The Windber hospital benefactor's company is on the shortlist for producing a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong has been promoting the NantKwest vaccine after announcing last month it was among 14 candidates being evaluated by Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s push to deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021.

The Department of Health and Human Services website says the government expects to select about seven of the candidates for further study.

NantKwest has surged as the vaccine research makes news.

Soon-Shiong recently told Fox Business News's Maria Bartiromo the vaccine is ready for clinical trials.

“I'm really hopeful that our government will support my being able to develop billions of doses,” Soon-Shiong said.

California billionaire Soon-Shiong has been chairman of the former Windber Medical Center since 2016 when his non-profit, Chan Soon-Shiong NantHealth Foundation, became the umbrella for both Chan-Soon Shiong Medical Center at Windber and the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute for Molecular Medicine at Windber.

Soon-Shiong was interested in the former Windber Research Institute's biobank of frozen cancer tissue for his massive effort to develop cancer vaccines that build on the body's natural defenses.

“The vaccine I am developing for COVID originated out of my work in cancer,” Soon-Shiong said on Fox Business.

He told the medical news site Contagion that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 acts like cancer because it finds receptors on human cells that allow the virus cells to invade and change the makeup of the cells.

“It integrates and replicates just like cancer metastasizes,” he said in a ContagionLive video.

NantKwest's vaccine is unique in its two-pronged approach, helping the body to not only develop antibodies, but also T cells, which play an important role in the immune system.

Soon-Shiong believes his is the only vaccine in development that includes the T cell approach. Other vaccines target the “spike protein” found on the familiar spikes found on coronavirus' exterior. His vaccine includes a nucleotide protein from the nucleus or center of the virus.

Although he admits there is no guarantee the nucleus approach is better, Soon-Shiong believes it could be a more long-lasting protection. He said studies show T cells developed in patients who survived the SARS coronavirus epidemic are still found in their bloodstreams 17 years later.

Targeting the cell's innards has been an important part of the NantHealth network's cancer research, Soon-Shiong said.

“We found out you need to go after the nucleus of the virus, not just the outside,” he said in the Contagion Live video.

“It's a very sophisticated approach of not just throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks," Soon-Shiong said. "In the long run, we need to find out through clinical trials. That's where we are now.”

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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