Quebec biotech firm produces a potential COVID-19 vaccine

A biotechnology company in Quebec City has produced a potential vaccine for COVID-19. It's not yet a coronavirus vaccine — at this stage it is a "vaccine candidate" that could still prove to be ineffective. But the 20-day turnaround is notable: vaccine candidates are typically developed on a scale of months or more.

'Extremely fast' turnaround, but months of tests required to verify effectiveness in humans

Quebec City-based Medicago uses plants to mass-produce vaccines. (Submitted by Medicago)

A biotechnology company in Quebec City that previously developed and mass produced a flu vaccine says it has produced a potential vaccine for COVID-19.

This is not yet a coronavirus vaccine — at this stage it is a "vaccine candidate" that could still prove to be ineffective during several steps and test phases.

But as scientists around the world race to find a vaccine, the 20-day turnaround by the company, Medicago, is notable: vaccine candidates are typically developed on a scale of months or more.

"We can produce a vaccine candidate very quickly once a pandemic is declared," said Nathalie Landry, Medicago's executive vice-president of scientific and medical affairs.

"We can scale up very quickly and produce a large number of doses. If you think of influenza, for example, it takes anything from four to six months before vaccine doses are produced."

Medicago's vaccine candidate is moving at a "very fast pace," and will proceed to safety and efficacy testing in animals in the coming weeks, Landry said. Human trials could begin as early as July, the company says.

Medicago uses "virus-like particles" — molecules that mimic the form of a virus, but without the infectious properties — that can trigger a human's immune system to create antibodies that can fight the actual virus.

Dr. Gary Kobinger, shown in a 2019 file photo, heads the Infectious Disease Research Centre at Laval University. (CBC)

The technology is like a photocopy of the virus and permits an "extremely fast" turnaround, said Dr. Gary Kobinger, head of the Infectious Disease Research Centre at Laval University, whose lab is working with several vaccine candidates, including Medicago's. 

"A virus-like particle is exactly the same thing as the virus itself without anything inside," Kobinger said. "It's an empty shell with the same outside, but the inside is completely empty. There's no way it can replicate. There's no genetic information, no protein, nothing."

Medicago's system means "you can engineer it very easily by getting the protein of whatever virus is going around and swap it in," said Dr. Marc-André Langlois, a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa, who is working on another vaccine candidate and is not involved with Medicago's work.

"The advantage is that you can get it done extremely quickly. It can result in excellent candidates that can produce a vaccine."

Kobinger's research group is also using Medicago's technology to try to develop a therapeutic treatment for people already stricken by COVID-19, using copies of the antibodies found in the systems of people who were infected with the virus and have since recovered.

Landry said that Medicago's previous successful vaccine projects, including a flu vaccine developed in 2012, gives high confidence that the COVID-19 vaccine candidate will work, though she noted there are no guarantees.

Vaccine ready in one year is 'miracle' scenario

The company's technology uses plants — instead of animal cells or eggs — to mass produce vaccines, which means scaling up to deliver vaccine doses to millions can be done more quickly than with traditional vaccine manufacturing processes.

Kobinger says the technology is extremely promising, but even a "miracle" scenario would mean a vaccine reaching the public a year from now with proper testing.

"If they enter phase one clinical trials in July [or] August, you could see phase two in December … and phase three in maybe March of next year," he said. "If we did that, we would beat all records."

All experts emphasize that the testing process is a crucial step. A vaccine candidate could prove to be unsafe, or it could be safe and effective in animal testing and have no effect on humans.

"Every virus is slightly different," Langlois said. "I think no one can predict if something can be safe and effective until it is tested."

If you think you have symptoms of COVID-19, call 1-877-644-4545 before heading to a hospital or a clinic to seek testing. Do not call 811 as that service is receiving more calls than it can handle.

The Quebec government is also posting up-to-date information on this website.