In the fast-evolving field of vaccines, Prairie lab is at the cutting edge

VIDO is known for its work in animal health, but it’s developing a COVID-19 vaccine and a production facility

The ability to produce new vaccines is improving by leaps and bounds, says Volker Gerdts, head of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan.
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At a time when the entire world has never been more focused on vaccine development, one of Canada’s leading researchers in the field had some positive words on the subject for delegates to the 2021 Banff Pork Seminar.

In his presentation, Volker Gerdts pointed to the mRNA technology used to develop the first two COVID-19 vaccines in record time.

“The new RNA vaccines are just a perfect example of how the field is evolving at the moment in the face of the pandemic,” said the director and CEO of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

“And the other thing that we’re learning with this pandemic, of course, is that vaccine development that used to take years — for humans, 10 to 12 years and for animals, five to eight years — will in the future, be developed in a much shorter time,” he said.

VIDO has 45 years of history in the vaccine world and today is a leader in Canada and globally. The organization has produced 10 vaccines in that time, six of those world firsts.

Although its major focus is on animal health, the organization — which has 150 scientists and staff — now works on human and animal pathogens in its Level 3 agriculture containment facility. It was the first in Canada to isolate the COVID-19 virus and supply it to the international network of scientists frantically working on a vaccine. It has also developed a vaccine candidate that is about to go into a first-stage human clinical trial.

And it is also building a manufacturing facility capable of producing millions of doses of various animal and human vaccines per year.

“Our facility here at VIDO-InterVac, in the future, will be able to make both human and animal vaccines, up to 20 million to 40 million doses per year,” said Gerdts. “Construction will be completed in 2021 with the first production run starting in 2022.”

In his virtual presentation, he also explained that while viruses can spread in many ways, they need to get inside cells in order to replicate. They have mechanisms to do that so they can take over cells and use them to reproduce copies of themselves. VIDO’s vaccine strategy is to try and block this.

There are two main vaccine mechanisms to accomplish this, said Gerdts. One is antibodies which block a virus’s ability to latch on to the cell. The other is T-cells, which are cells that kill other cells.

There are several different types of vaccine technology and each has pros and cons:

  • Live attenuated vaccines provoke strong immune response but have safety concerns as animals can still shed the virus.
  • Inactivated (killed) vaccines are very safe but require additional adjuvants to work effectively.
  • Recombinant (subunit) vaccines are also very safe but don’t provoke a strong immune response and need adjuvants.
  • Vectored vaccines have the advantages of both live and inactivated vaccines but immunity against a vector can be a problem.
  • DNA and RNA vaccine are a novel technology that have been shown to be very effective in experimental animals but use in humans and animals not yet fully explored.

When it comes to creating a vaccine, scientists always have the same wish list, said Gerdts. They want a vaccine that works fast, provides immunity for a long time, needs only one dose, is highly effective, works for everyone, is safe and has no side-effects, and is easy to store, transport and administer.

The goal for every vaccine is to mimic first exposure to the pathogen. That produces a much stronger reaction from the immune system, which is the purpose of booster immunizations.

Vaccines remain the most effective means of controlling infectious diseases, said Gerdts, but perhaps the biggest opportunity, in his view, is what is driving new thinking at VIDO.

“The question really is, why wait for the disease to break out and then try to catch up with it?” he asked.

“Traditionally that would take 10 to 15 years and under accelerated conditions like we see now, it still takes one to two years and still accounts for billions or trillions of dollars in losses.”

But with advances in bioinformatics (computer technology to analyze biological data) and artificial intelligence, it’s possible to search for and determine the structure of pathogens present in nature that could jump to humans and animals.

“So we can model it in the lab what would happen in the real world and have a vaccine even before a disease breaks out,” said Gerdts. “These could be stored at the World Health Organization or OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) and when a disease breaks out, a plane would take off, deliver the vaccine, and even if it is not 100 per cent to start with, it would help a lot to contain the disease.”

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