While Canada is making some progress is getting the novel coronavirus pandemic under control, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said there is no going back to normal until a vaccine is developed.
A critical piece in defeating COVID-19 is achieving herd immunity via vaccinations, which can typically take anywhere between 10 to 15 years to develop, test and approve.
But the urgency of a once-in-a-generation global emergency has researchers and scientists around the world racing at breakneck speed to find a viable candidate.
There are 150 vaccine development projects currently underway worldwide and clinical trials on humans have already been approved in Germany and the U.K.
“It’s absolutely fascinating what’s going on. This is completely unprecedented — to see the scale of response to making a vaccine to this disease,” says Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, Director of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases.
In Canada, researchers are rising to the challenge in remarkable ways and one company is already moving towards the testing stages of a vaccine candidate.
In 2009, bio-pharmaceutical company Medicago developed a research-grade vaccine for H1N1 in just 19 days. They now say they’ve once again successfully produced a viable vaccine candidate for COVID-19 just 20 days after receiving the virus gene.
The company currently has a flu vaccine that is under review by Canadian regulators and they are developing their coronavirus vaccine using similar processes, which has given them a bit of a head start.
“The progress we’ve been able to make on the COVID vaccine has really been built on our experience with the seasonal flu vaccine,” explains Dr. Bruce Clark, President and CEO at Medicago.
Vaccines are typically developed in eggs and the process requires a live virus to be inserted into the egg. It is then grown and harvested from that environment.
Medicago, however, uses plants as a platform to develop vaccines and does not need a live virus — just the genetic sequence of the virus that is relevant to the “effect” they are trying to achieve — which is then inserted into the plant.
In this case, that “effect” is the plant producing a virus-like particle which, for all intents and purposes, looks like COVID-19 to the human body, but does not contain any of the genetic sequence required for infection. That particle is then harvested to develop the vaccine.
“It elicits an immune response from the body that you want to elicit without the risk of infecting it,” says Clark.
Some treatment approaches are focusing on specific antibodies that could fight the virus, but as Clark explains, when a vaccine is administered to someone, the body sees that vaccine as the virus itself, which then triggers a whole range of responses.
“It’s much more similar to when you actually get infected by the virus and your body’s natural defences come into play. So it’s not one specific antibody that’s being triggered, it’s a whole range of the immune responses, including antibodies, that are triggered in an attempt to fight the virus off,” says Clark.
In terms of when a vaccine will be ready for market, Crowcroft opines there is no clear answer and says current suggested estimates of 12 to 18 months are a “made up number.” But Clark says he thinks that is a “reasonably realistic” time frame for a safe vaccine to be distributed.
“One of the things we know in drug development and are always mindful of is that you can’t cut corners, you can’t take shortcuts. But there are ways to mitigate risk to allow the process to be accelerated,” says Clark.
He says that drug developers across the world have been able to move quickly because drug regulators — who are responsible for new drug approvals — are working very closely with companies like theirs to hasten the process, while still ensuring safety is paramount.
Government funding has also no doubt been a huge asset in rapid vaccine development.
The Canadian government is investing $1.1 billion into a national medical and research strategy that will fund research on vaccines, support clinical trials and expand national testing and modelling.
Medicago’s vaccine is currently in the pre-clinical testing phase which is aimed at demonstrating that the product they are developing is safe.
They hope to complete this phase by late spring and move on to testing on humans by mid-summer.