Nova Scotia

Halifax trial for made-in-Canada vaccine struggles to find new recruits

A vaccine researcher in Halifax says Nova Scotia's vaccination progress is making it harder to find volunteers to test a new type of vaccine against COVID-19. 

Entos Pharmaceuticals of Edmonton wants to create a one-shot vaccine, but needs volunteers

Carolyne Aremo, RN, prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID -19 vaccine injection at a vaccine clinic in Upper Hammonds Plains, N.S., in April. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

A vaccine researcher in Halifax says Nova Scotia's vaccination progress is making it harder to find volunteers to test a new, made-in-Canada vaccine against COVID-19. 

The company behind the vaccine, Entos Pharmaceuticals of Edmonton, aims to create a single-dose vaccine based on DNA, similar to the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. 

"We're very happy that Nova Scotia's vaccine rollout has been as successful as it is," said Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. 

"But it does have consequences. We have to now think a little bit more broadly about how we achieve all the objectives of this study."

Because DNA is a hardier molecule, Entos Pharmaceuticals said a DNA vaccine can survive a month without refrigeration, or up to a year in a regular fridge someone would have in their kitchen.

This would make it valuable to protect remote populations in areas where laboratory refrigeration is unavailable. 

Could tackle new COVID strains

"We provide a genetic vaccine like the RNA vaccine, but with the single shot, fridge stable that can be transported around the world," said John Lewis, founder and CEO of Entos Pharmaceuticals. 

The vaccine could also be useful in Canada and other developed countries if new strains of COVID prove to be problematic.

"This would also allow us to make, in Canada, a single-shot booster against any dangerous variants that emerge," Lewis said. 

Lewis is CEO and founder of Edmonton-based Entos Pharmaceuticals. (Submitted by John Lewis)

Lewis, who has no involvement with the clinical trails in Halifax, said so far 18 Nova Scotians have received a low dose of the Entos vaccine with no ill effects. 

"The data safety monitoring committee met and reported no issues, and enabled the rest of the trial to continue at the high dose," he said. 

But Halperin, the pediatric immunologist overseeing the trials in Halifax, said finding eligible volunteers is becoming a challenge.

The trial needs to recruit 18 people aged 18 to 65 who have not received an authorized vaccine or been infected with COVID-19. 

"The number of people who are interested in participating in a clinical trial and holding off on getting an authorized vaccine is growing very small," Halperin said. 

Seeking volunteers

Adults in their 20s will be key for the next step. 

"University students and young working adults that are done with school and they're out, and they may just have been too busy to think about vaccination, they may still want to consider doing this," he said. 

Anyone with a potential interest in volunteering can contact Heather Samson at the IWK at 902-470-8141.

Halperin said the Centre for Vaccinology is also seeking 36 people aged 65 to 85 to receive the trial vaccine. But with that population almost entirely vaccinated, he expects those trials will have to take place elsewhere. 

"There are certainly other areas in the world where vaccines have not been as widely available yet, where those populations might still be eligible. And I think those are some of the strategies that we'll be discussing with Entos," Halperin said. 

"We're happy that the elderly population has been vaccinated, but we're not expecting to be able to recruit those 36 patients in Halifax."

Degree of protection not yet known

Lewis said he's still hopeful enough younger Nova Scotia volunteers can be found to allow the second phase of testing to continue in July. 

That would involve 500 subjects who would receive either high or low doses of the vaccine. 

Lewis said the degree of protection the vaccine offers against COVID-19 would be assessed during the third phase.

"If we can hit our recruitment goals, we could have a made-in-Canada vaccine approved before the end of the year," he said.