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Western researchers get nearly $1M to start work on COVID-19 vaccine

Western University researchers have joined the global effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 by beginning to work on the development of a vaccine with the help of almost $1-million of federal funding.

Researchers also looking to get ahead of another outbreak by creating a vaccine bank for coronavirus strains

Researchers will develop a vaccine at Western University's recently constructed $16-million Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT) facility, which contains one of the country's newest Level 3 containment facilities. (Liny Lamberink/CBC )

Western University researchers have joined the global effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 by beginning to work on the development of a vaccine with the help of almost $1-million in federal funding.

The researchers, made up by experts in virology, microbiology, vaccinology, bioinformatics and immunology, are establishing an effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

"A vaccine, if implemented properly, can really control the spread of the virus quite effectively," said Eric Arts, a professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, who's one of the leads in the research efforts.

As of Thursday, more than 220,000 people have been infected with the virus, and 10,000 people have died from it worldwide. 

Alongside a vaccine, the team of more than a dozen researches is also looking to get ahead by working on developing a vaccine bank, which would have many ready-to-go vaccines in the case of another coronavirus outbreak of a different strain.

"We've already had SARS, we've had MERS and now we have COVID-19, and after each one of these epidemics we've shut down our research programs in relation to coronavirus and assumed it was going away forever," Arts said.

"We want to respond to this current epidemic, but not to shut down anymore. Instead, we want to really continue our efforts in establishing vaccines that will work for any new coronavirus outbreaks in the future," he added. 

Using bioinformatics, the aim of the project is to identify which strain of coronavirus is circulating early in an outbreak and immediately start vaccine production from the vaccine bank. 

The work will be done at Western University's recently constructed $16-million Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT) facility, which contains one of the country's newest Level 3 containment facilities and a suite of state-of-the-art imaging equipment. 

For this project, researchers are building off of the work started by Chil-Yong Kang, a professor emeritus at the school, who has been working on a vaccine for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which is caused by a class of coronavirus similar to the one that causes COVID-19.  

"MERS-CoV is highly related to this new virus, so it is possible to adapt that vaccine strategy quite rapidly for SARS-CoV-2," Arts said, however, rapid doesn't mean a vaccine will be ready in the next couple of months.  

"It's unlikely, that a vaccine will be developed in time for this first wave of COVID-19," he said. "Six months is really optimistic. It's more likely a year from now."

Western University's research is one of the 96 projects that will be funded by the country in response to the pandemic. Their team received $998,840 in fast-tracked funding for the project.

"We're trying to do the best we can and move as fast as we can and I really hope we can work together in finding something," Arts said.