Guelph-led COVID-19 vaccine study gets provincial funding to move forward

A University of Guelph COVID-19 vaccine study has received provincial funding to move forward, the premier announced Thursday.

Work being done could be applied to other infectious diseases in the future

Byram Bridle is one of three researchers at the University of Guelph working on a vaccine for COVID-19. The researchers have received funding from the province. (McMaster University)

A University of Guelph study that is developing a COVID-19 vaccine has received funding from the province, Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday.

The Guelph study involves three researchers who have been developing vaccines to treat cancer: Byram Bridle, a viral immunologist, Sarah Wootton, a virologist and Leonardo Susta, a pathologist who specializes in virology.

"When it comes to cancer immunotherapies, we're actually trying to get the body to mount robust responses against cancerous cells to kill off those cancer cells. And why that's important is because we're constantly trying to fight against the body's natural tendency to not respond to things that are part of the body. We've had to, over the years, develop all kinds of ideas and methods to optimize cancer vaccines," Bridle said in an interview Thursday.

"Because we have these technological platforms, we realized we could quickly, through the virology expertise, switch our cancer vaccines over to vaccines against infectious diseases."

The vaccine platforms they've created are flexible, which Bridle says means they can "use these highly optimized vaccines now to try and induce immune responses against the SARS-CoV-2," which is the causative agent of COVID-19.

Next steps in testing

Bridle says they've already engineered four vaccines. Now the Guelph researchers are currently ramping up production of the vaccine to begin testing.

Bridle says the role Susta plays in the research is critical to ensuring the vaccines are "safe and aren't causing any off target or unexpected damage to the host."

One the testing at Guelph is done, the vaccines will be sent to Darwyn Kobasa at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg for further testing. 

The funding from the province is for one year only, Bridle noted.

"Our plan is, by the end of the year, so this would be in 2021, to have completely vetted the science and identified an optimal vaccine strategy to protect against infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 and at that point ... our goal would be to start talking to Health Canada," he said.

Research is adaptable

The other part of good news about this research is that it's adaptable, Bridle says.

"Some of the technologies that are being developed right now would potentially be useful for COVID-19, but they'll only be useful for COVID-19," he said.

"What we're trying to develop now would be useful for COVID-19 but also … as we continue to optimize these therapeutic strategies, it can then be applied in the future to other infectious diseases. And of course we can then flip it back to having more effective treatments for cancers."

The study received $230,000 and is among 15 research projects focused on preventing, detecting and treating COVID-19 that have been given the green light to move forward. The projects are being funded by a $20 million COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund set up by the province. 

Some of the other projects involve rapid testing method that would allow a lab to process up to 6,000 tests a day, a food security study, and a study of recovered patients and antibodies they may have to COVID-19.

"Any of these are groundbreaking projects. They have the potential to be a game changer," Ford said during a media briefing Thursday. "I want that vaccine to be discovered right here in Ontario."