People entering Deaconess

People enter Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital in this March 2020 file photo.

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Two major pharmaceutical companies that are collaborating to develop a COVID-19 vaccine have tapped Bozeman Health to aid their effort.

The local health care system is one of 120 organizations selected by Pfizer and BioNTech to help carry out late-phase clinical trials of their vaccine. The companies recently announced they secured a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to produce 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and to distribute them at no cost to residents.

The government can acquire an additional 500 million doses under that contract.

Mark Williams, chief physician officer for Bozeman Health, said the organization’s clinical research department has worked with Pfizer before, and that’s likely why Bozeman Health was selected to help with clinical trials.

“It’s pretty special that an organization this size has a very robust clinical research department,” Williams said.

The department has five full-time staff, although it’s in the process of expanding, Williams said. He said the department is comprised of researchers who have lots of experience doing this type of work. Even so, the COVID-19 vaccine is unique.

“We’ve never seen such urgency to find a vaccine. There are major drug companies around the world competing to bring something to market as quickly as possible,” Williams said.

The pharmaceutical companies hope to start distributing the vaccine in 2021, if not by the end of this year. Development began in the spring. Typically, vaccines take three to nine years to develop, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The U.S. continues to see rapid, widespread transmission of COVID-19. The country surpassed 150,000 deaths last week. Montana has been experiencing an unrelenting surge in cases since late June.

Public health experts advise that while wearing masks and social-distancing are important, a vaccine is a vital tool needed to combat further spread.

Williams said staff are still waiting on more specific instructions from the developers on what their work will entail, but in general terms, Bozeman Health will be evaluating whether the vaccine is safe and effective through clinical trials. Work should get underway in the next two weeks.

Clinical trials involve recruiting volunteers who are willing to get injected with a vaccine or take a medication.

“We monitor them, observe them and then eventually see how effective the drug or medication was,” Williams said.

Williams said Bozeman Health will follow strict guidelines regarding informed consent for participants and the facility where the clinical trial will happen. He said the hope is that this project will open doors for more research opportunities, and that it will attract new experts to work for the organization.

“Bozeman Health is just excited to do this type of work,” Williams said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.