Canada needs to massively increase investments in vaccine research to avoid a future emerging disease from devastating lives, society, and the economy the way COVID-19 has, according to Dr. Volker Gerdts, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO).
“Every year, there is about three new diseases that emerge and every second or third year, there is a larger event that we should be concerned about,” said Dr. Gerdts, referring to the 2003 SARS outbreak, MERS, the swine flu, Zika and others. “Why do we have to wait until a new disease emerges? Why can’t we predict what it is and make vaccines in anticipation and have them ready?” he said during a Feb. 18 webinar, organized by the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering.
Determining which virus might be the next one to jump from animals to humans isn’t the needle-in-a-haystack endeavour it might seem, said Dr. Gerdts. After SARS and MERS, it was pretty clear coronaviruses were a huge threat, and with RNA viruses, it could be possible to create a vaccine that would target genetic material common across the coronavirus family. “We can look at the existing (coronaviruses) and look at regions that are similar between all of them,” he said.
Scientists could collaborate across borders and potentially determine common genetic material among a number of coronaviruses that are less likely to mutate and would be a good target for a vaccine. “We need to be proactive rather than reactive,” he said.
The first centre in Canada to isolate the SARS-CoV-2 virus in collaboration with Sunnybrook Health Centre, and the first in Canada to get a vaccine candidate in animal trials, VIDO is Canada’s largest high-containment lab, capable of handling level-3 pathogens, which can become airborne and cause serious disease.
Housing animals from brown bats to alpacas, the centre researches diseases affecting both animals and humans and has developed and commercialized 10 vaccines since it was established in 1975. Being able to conduct research on both large and small animals is a major advantage, given more than 70 percent of all emerging infectious diseases move from animals to humans. “We can actually now predict what the next pathogen might look like. We can model that, simulate it in the lab using computers and, using bioinformatics and genomic sciences, really predict what the next disease might be,” he said. The centre attracts scientists from around the world and has partnered with more than 80 companies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Despite their successes, VIDO has been limited by a lack of manufacturing capacity – which is why its early vaccine only recently started human trials. “We started our design in January (2020) … we had a vaccine ready that could go into animals and we already demonstrated in March in ferrets that the vaccine was working,” he said. But VIDO doesn’t have its own manufacturing facility for vaccines and drugs – that’s currently being built and will be completed by the end of this year. Dr. Gerdts and his team had to approach two other manufacturing companies, negotiate contracts, and wait until the companies had met prior contract obligations before fitting the vaccine production in. Manufacturing delays due to outsourcing added six months to the timeline, according to Dr. Gerdts. But if the vaccine proves to be safe and effective, it could be available by later this year or early next year.
Human resources capacity is also an obstacle. Dr. Gerdts says it takes VIDO staff about four months to get a new hire “to the level where they are comfortable working in the labs, in full PPE [personal protective equipment], with a potentially deadly virus.” It’s not the scientific knowledge that’s lacking but the “hands-on training in the lab,” he says. The University of Saskatchewan is currently using the VIDO facility to offer training courses for master’s of science students in vaccinology and immunotherapeutics, as well as those pursuing its One Health graduate certificate.
But more investment in lab infrastructure and training capacity is needed country-wide so that we have researchers ready to go when the next emerging disease hits, he stressed.
When asked by an audience member if he was concerned that interest in pandemic research could wane, as it did after the last SARS pandemic, Dr. Gerdts said, “Our generation has now seen how significant the impact of a global pandemic can be in our lives. And so hopefully, that will last for at least a decade or two in people’s memory to not forget about these programs, and to continue to operationally fund these centres.”