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Long Island company shifts COVID-19 vaccine trial focus from cats to mink

This 2013 photo shows two minks in cages

This 2013 photo shows two minks in cages at Bob Zimbal's fur farm in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. Credit: AP/Carrie Antlfinger

A Stony Brook company whose human COVID-19 vaccine was repurposed to treat cats has pivoted to a more promising animal market: mink farms.

Applied DNA Sciences Inc. expects to begin the new animal trials in upstate Brewster this month, a company spokesman said.

Mink, however, will not be used to test the vaccine. Instead, the trials will use ferrets because uninfected mink are scarce.

"Ferrets are in the same family as mink," said James A. Hayward, chairman and chief executive of Applied DNA. "It's kind of hard to find mink that don't have it. So we're using ferrets as a surrogate for mink."

The mink vaccine initiative comes as Applied DNA rolls out testing programs for Suffolk County Community College and the City University of New York:

On Thursday, Applied DNA announced that its clinical labs subsidiary was awarded an initial one-year contract to monitor cases of COVID-19 among SCCC's unvaccinated staff and faculty. SCCC is a unit of the State University of New York, which requires all on-campus students to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 27. SCCC has about 2,000 full-time and adjunct faculty at its Selden, Brentwood and Riverhead campuses and about 25,000 full- and part-time students.

In August, the company announced it had won a 12-month contract to carry out testing at the City University of New York. That contract, covering CUNY's 25 colleges, could be worth as much as $35 million.

"COVID testing and monitoring of populations is still extremely relevant," said Hayward. "We don't really know the penetration rates, especially in academic environments," of the Delta variant.

After the pandemic struck, Applied DNA began developing a COVID-19 vaccine for humans with its Rome-based Italian partner, Takis Biotech. That effort was soon eclipsed by efforts of giant global pharmaceutical companies.

In the fall of 2020, Applied DNA announced a plan to launch the feline vaccine trial with Evvivax S.R.L., a spinout of Takis Biotech.

Hayward said the company remains interested in the feline market though coronavirus transmission has only been documented from human to cat and not cat to human.

Those feline trials provided encouraging indications of the vaccine's efficacy, he said. "The work we've done with felines demonstrates our vaccine works very well."

Results from the mink vaccine trial's first phase are expected to be complete around the end of the year and a second phase of the trial would be conducted in 2022. If the vaccine passes muster, the companies would apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for emergency use authorization.

The ferret studies, run by Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, will be so-called "challenge trials" in which healthy ferrets are vaccinated and then exposed to the coronavirus.

Such challenge trials — whether for animals or humans — provide a shortcut to evaluating vaccines' effectiveness.

In non-challenge trials, researchers vaccinate a group and track whether members of that group come down with the specified disease. They can then compare infection rates among that vaccinated group against the general population. Challenge trials, by contrast, provide direct evidence of a vaccine's protection.

An Applied DNA spokesman said that if the vaccine is approved by the Department of Agriculture, the company would seek partners to market the drug to the roughly 275 mink farms in the United States and others in Europe.

"The mink population in the U.S. and Europe has been devastated by the virus," he said.

Mink production in the United States totaled 1.4 million pelts in 2020, a 49% decline from the previous year, according to the Agriculture Department's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The average price per pelt in 2020 was $33.70 versus $21.30 in 2019.

An August report by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said that mink-to-human spread of the virus had been reported in Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands and possibly Michigan.

Shares of Applied DNA shed 0.17% to close Wednesday at $5.87.

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