How does a lab in Sask. that focuses on animals has become Canada’s hope for $ 23 million for a COVID-19 vaccine

How does a lab in Sask. that focuses on animals has become Canada's hope for $ 23 million for a COVID-19 vaccine

In the global race to find a COVID-19 vaccine, the federal government announced Monday that it is injecting $ 23 million into a university research laboratory in Saskatchewan.

The Organization for Vaccines and Infectious Diseases – International Center for Vaccination (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan started out as a modest veterinary laboratory in 1975. But it has become a world-class facility that the Trudeau government is betting on can develop a vaccine to stop the pandemic.

The Saskatoon laboratory is already one step ahead. He has been working on coronavirus vaccines, mainly for animals, for four decades, including effective vaccines for cattle and pigs.

Today, the immunization center is one of the few high-level containment facilities in the world able to conduct research on a vaccine against COVID-19.

VIDO-InterVac researcher Darryl Falzarano and Associate Director Paul Hodgson told CBC News in a large interview on Friday that there has been interest in funding pan-coronavirus research in the past for man was a challenge.

Although the focus is now on stopping COVID-19, Hodgson said that finding a coronavirus vaccine is their “vision statement”, just as a universal flu vaccine is a goal of scientists for decades.

“This is something we have never been able to get funding for,” said Falzarano.

Falzarano, left, says the laboratory’s goal has long been to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. (Bonnie Allen / CBC)

But all of that has changed, at least for the foreseeable future. Today, 160 people work in the laboratory – and up to 30% of them are working on a coronavirus vaccine.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has given the green light to VIDO-InterVac to begin research into a vaccine for humans in late January. The researchers isolated the virus from a sample and have since developed the virus in a cell culture and are currently testing a candidate vaccine in animals.

One of the questions Hodgson says he is asked frequently these days is, “Why can’t you get a vaccine faster?”

The answer is complicated.

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The announcement of multi-million dollar funding from the federal government as part of a global campaign to develop a vaccine comes amid an international health crisis that has already killed more than 18,000 people worldwide. Canada had more than 2,700 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, resulting in 27 deaths.

In the past two decades, there have been global outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), both caused by coronaviruses. But when the epidemics subsided, so did the search for a vaccine.

In 2003, VIDO-InterVac was part of the rush to develop a SARS vaccine in Canada, dubbed the Accelerated SARS Vaccine Initiative. Although promising candidates were developed in a relatively short time, a vaccine against SARS was ultimately not tested and no vaccine exists today.

“Until the arrival of MERS [in 2012], there was probably no solid evidence that a coronavirus would be something we should worry about, and it will happen again, “said Falzarano.

VIDO-InterVac Associate Director Paul Hodgson said it has been difficult in the past to find funding for laboratory coronavirus research. (VIDO-InterVac)

Hodgson said scientists use the knowledge acquired from SARS and MERS. But for years before the current epidemic, finding a vaccine for the human coronavirus was not a priority for governments or large pharmaceutical companies. And when it comes to finding vaccines, research follows money.

Two years ago, VIDO-InterVac obtained a four-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the funding agency of the federal government. The government of Saudi Arabia has also launched grants. The research project? A vaccine that stops the transmission of MERS from camels to humans.

“We have been working more immediately on MERS vaccines and have always progressed, very slowly, looking at different ways to start selling the concept of a coronavirus vaccine better,” said Falzarano. “It was disappointing for me. It was something I had planned to do when I worked here and then it became clear that no one was too interested in [funding] this concept. “

Now, funding for vaccine research has become imperative. The Trudeau government has committed $ 11 million to research VIDO-InterVac vaccines and an additional $ 12 million to expand manufacturing capacity for clinical trials.

According to Hodgson, Canada’s ability to manufacture a vaccine at home is a concern.

VIDO InterVac researchers use alpacas in their research on the MERS vaccine on the transmission of camels to humans. (VIDO-InterVac)

“From the point of view of national security or emergency preparedness, the production capacity that we have has really started to decrease,” said Hodgson.

VIDO-InterVac had pushed the Canadian government to increase its manufacturing capacity.

“Our ultimate goal”

Three times a week, scientists in the Saskatoon laboratory start their long day with an early morning teleconference with the World Health Organization as they lead Canada’s contribution to the global effort to find a vaccine.

To date, Canada is one of 10 countries participating in a research network that WHO calls Solidarity, which shares research on the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO, said on Friday at a press conference that international cooperation will provide the level of data needed to determine the most effective treatments.

On Friday, neither the United States nor China were listed by the WHO as participating in the Solidarity tests.

Back at VIDO-InterVac, the team is resolutely focused on developing a vaccine to protect the world.

“This is our ultimate goal,” said Hodgson. “It would be fantastic if we developed a cure and made $ 100 million and were self-reliant from now on, but our vision is to protect Canada and the world from infectious disease.”

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