‘A race against the disease’: Canadian researchers part of global effort to develop COVID-19 vaccine


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In the quiet of the University of Saskatchewan’s shuttered campus, there is one constant beacon of light and hope. Dr. Volker Gerdts and his team of researchers are working in shifts around the clock to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus — and feeling the pressure to move even faster.

“There is a real sense of urgency,” Dr. Gerdts says.

“We have a highly motivated team, and everybody is willing to step up and do as much as they can. And so this is really, you know, a race against the disease.”

Gerdts is the director and chief executive officer of the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac). The lab in Saskatoon is one of the most advanced infectious disease research facilities in the world and has been evaluating COVID-19 vaccine models for several weeks.

A recent $28-million funding boost from the federal and provincial government to enhance its COVID-19 research capacity to test antivirals, drugs, and therapeutics has been helping fast-track that research even more.

And on April 23, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1.1 billion national strategy for medical research to fight COVID-19, including:

  • $115 million for research into vaccines and treatments being developed in hospitals and universities.
  • $662 million for clinical trials in Canada.
  • $350 million to expand national testing and modelling for COVID-19.
  • An immunity task force focused on blood-based tests used to determine if someone has been exposed to the virus.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1.1 billion strategy to fund COVID-19 medical research and a task force to study immunity. 3:53

VIDO-InterVac is already at the forefront of an extraordinary global effort to halt the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus. It’s one of a handful of labs in the world with a potential vaccine at the animal testing phase.

The new federal funding includes $23 million to support pre-clinical testing and clinical trials of a potential COVID-19 vaccine, essential steps to ensuring that vaccines are effective and safe for human use.

“What was my reaction? Ecstatic,” Gerdts says. “Good to see the commitment from the Government to fund a Canadian vaccine for Canadians.”

Next month could be a turning point for VIDO-InterVac, when ferrets — chosen because their respiratory system is similar to that of humans — are exposed to the novel coronavirus to see if the lab’s vaccine candidate works. VIDO-InterVac is also testing other researchers’ vaccines on hamsters.

Gerdts says the research is moving at an accelerated rate, and everyone is looking for a breakthrough before the pandemic’s next potential wave of infections.

“The concern that we all have at the moment is whether there is another phase to this or not. And so having a vaccine for the next phase is absolutely critical. It will allow us to improve what we call herd immunity, to get more people vaccinated — more people with an immune response in the population, and the better we all are protected in the future.”

There are at least 70 research teams around the world, including in Canada, racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in a year, something that has never been done before. 1:58

International network

Gerdts’ team is part of the World Health Organization’s pandemic vaccine network, made up of expert groups of nearly 200 scientists and researchers from around the world.

They’re working in tandem and exchanging notes in real time on medical servers and through weekly phone calls. There’s even a vaccine tracker built by the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine that monitors the 60-plus COVID vaccines in development and their progress.

It’s a remarkable coordinated effort that is breaking down scientific borders and academic bragging rights.

“The most important thing in all of this is not to be first,” says virologist Paul Duprex from the University of Pittsburgh, who is part of the WHO vaccine braintrust.

Duprex says scientists usually compete to publish their findings first, for the credit that comes with it. The new virus has changed that, and there will be plenty of time to publish later.

“Let’s just cut the crap and move forward and work together and be collegial. This is a worldwide problem, and this is a worldwide issue that we should solve together,” he says.

Virologist Paul Duprex from the University of Pittsburgh is part of the WHO team working on a COVID-19 vaccine. He says the collaborative approach to this project is allowing research to move forward much faster than usual. (Centre for Vaccine Research, University of Pittsburgh)

Duprex adds that the WHO collaboration is speeding up the process to find a successful vaccine among the dozens in development.

“I’m really glad that we’ve got lots and lots of different options, because you know what’s going to happen. Those vaccines are going to faIl at different stages in the testing process,” says Duprex. “So therefore, if we have backups upon backups and backups, that allows us to get something across the finish line.”

Infectious disease researcher Allison McGeer says this new, faster pace of global research means a vaccine could be developed more quickly and that could save lives.

“It’s critically important to do it faster,” says McGeer, who is with the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, part of Sinai Health in Toronto.

McGeer says that doesn’t mean shortcutting safety trials, but rather streamlining research processes to get a safe and effective vaccine into people’s arms faster.

“That allows a certain amount of creativity about how to do that. Whereas normally people would say, ‘well, you know, I’m just not sure about that and I want to be absolutely sure about it.’ Now there’s a good reason for doing it differently and you can make processes for developing vaccines faster in general, which we all agree would be a good thing.”

The search for a COVID 19 vaccine is already well underway and the University of Toronto joined the race thanks to a $10 million dollar donation. Ali Chiasson spoke to the research lead for this new lab that will be running 24/7. 2:43

A Canadian team

At VIDO-InterVac, Gerdts says if his team’s potential vaccine passes the animal test next month, human trials will follow in the fall and pave the way for a possible vaccine in a year.

The new government funding is also building manufacturing capacity in Canada, including at VIDO-Intervac, which hopes to be in a position to produce up to 20 million doses of new vaccine during a pandemic.

And while all the work behind finding a vaccine is part of a global effort, Gerdts says it’s a uniquely Canadian one, too.

“We’re a Canadian team making a vaccine for Canadians, and so it’s our highest priority to make sure that this vaccine will be available for Canadians. And we have received funding from the federal government and the provincial government to do this kind of research, so it’s important that we make sure that Canadians will have access to our vaccine.”

The team from the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan that is working on a COVID-19 vaccine. (Debra Marshall Photography)

And while this pandemic is still in its early stages, Gerdts is already looking ahead to the next one.

He says good science can simulate the evolution of a pathogen in the lab, to help predict the next deadly virus and give the world time to prepare. The lessons of this pandemic, Dr. Gerdts says, are already too harsh.

“We’re still talking about a year before we have a vaccine ready. People are dying right now, and the cost to the global economy is already in the trillions. We need to have vaccines ready for whatever the next pathogen might be. And this is where we have to push the envelope.”

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