Saskatchewan·Photos

Go inside the high-security lab where scientists search for a coronavirus vaccine

There's a global effort to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Scientists at a Saskatoon lab have already begun work inside their Level 3 containment lab.

Researchers at VIDO-InterVac take us inside a Level 3 lab where they work with deadly viruses

Scientists inside the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) in Saskatoon. From left to right: Darryl Falzarano, Swarali Kulkarni, Yurij Popowych, Jocelyne Lew and Yao Lu. (Bonnie Allen/CBC )

A day at the office for virologist Darryl Falzarano includes donning two layers of rubber gloves, a sealed body suit and an astronaut-like helmet, then taking a shower every time he steps outside the lab.

The strict safety protocols are necessary to handle potentially lethal pathogens, and to develop vaccines that could stop them.

Falzarano is the lead investigator for a Saskatoon team tackling the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, last month. It has infected almost 6,000 people, and killed more than 130, and has spread to more than a dozen countries including Canada.

In a rare opportunity, Falzarano escorted CBC News inside a containment lab at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization - International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) on the University of Saskatchewan campus. VIDO-InterVac is one of the largest, most advanced infectious disease research sites in the world and the lab is in the second-highest category of safety; biosafety level 3 is for work involving microbes that can cause serious and potentially lethal disease by inhalation. 

Scientists at VIDO-InterVac recently developed a vaccine for a strain of coronavirus that killed 10 million pigs in North America. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)
Falzarano is the lead investigator in the search for a vaccine for the coronavirus. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Researchers have already started preliminary work on a vaccine, using what they've learned in the past from other strains of coronaviruses.

The handful of new coronavirus cases in Canada will likely speed up their work, Falzarano says. VIDO-InterVac has requested a sample from the Public Health Agency of Canada and Public Health Ontario.

Researchers also ordered ingredients to build their own synthetic version of the coronavirus, using genome sequencing information from China. But making their own would take weeks.

Getting a sample of the virus "is a lot faster than reconstructing it ourselves," Falzarano said. 

His goal is to create a vaccine prototype within six to eight weeks, to be followed by animal testing. 

Scientists at a Saskatoon lab are part of a global effort to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. 2:34

Can't be rushed

The 285,000-square foot research facility can house large animals, like bison and cattle, for testing. Scientists at VIDO-InterVac recently developed a vaccine for a coronavirus that killed 10 million pigs in North America, and Falzarano uses alpacas to test vaccines that would combat the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.

For this latest coronavirus, Falzarano expects to test a vaccine on ferrets, as researchers did with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the coronavirus that infected about 8,000 people during the global outbreak of 2003. 

Human trials for this latest coronavirus are at least a year away. Falzarano cautions that some things can't be rushed.

The VIDO-InterVac team has 50 scientists from 26 countries. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

"Everyone can work as hard as they can, and as fast as they can, but certain processes take a certain amount of time and it's really hard to work faster than that," he said.

The team's research is part of a global effort says VIDO-InterVac executive director Volker Gerdts. 

"I wouldn't say it's a race. I mean, right now, this disease is really a concern to everyone on this planet," Gerdts said, adding that his team will share their findings with other scientists.

PhD student Swarali Kulkarni has been working on vaccine development for camels to thwart the transmission of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another strain of coronavirus, from camels to humans. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

'Prepare for the worst'

Researchers at VIDO-InterVac worked on a potential vaccine for SARS in 2003. But when cases disappeared, the funding dried up. Research never advanced to human trials.

Falzarano says researchers have to tackle this latest coronavirus as though it could turn into a pandemic.

"We don't know that this is a once-and-done scenario, so I think you always have to prepare for the worst case scenario," he said.

Level 3 containment facilities require all of the air, water and waste to be treated before leaving the building. (Don Somers/CBC)

Falzarano says he doesn't think a SARS vaccine, if it had been developed, would be effective on this one. 

However, those three strains of coronovirus that can be deadly to humans have underscored the need for a "pan-coronavirus vaccine."

That's the ultimate goal of this research team. Scientists propose using structural biology and protein engineering to develop wide-serving vaccines that could protect against multiple strains of coronaviruses.

The lab has 'critical, very sophisticated infrastructure to prevent the escape of any infectious materials,' said biosafety officer Tracey Thue. (Don Somers/CBC)

Limited capacity

VIDO-InterVac's $18 million annual costs are funded mostly by Ottawa and the province.

A vaccine development project can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the early phases, then millions as development nears the manufacturing phase.

VIDO-InterVac is both a research and development centre, but work can stall when it's time to manufacture a vaccine, because of limited capacity. 

"We don't have capacity in the country, or not as much as we used to have," Gerdts said. "So when these situations like this one arise, we have to go to other countries to get our technologies manufactured in those countries. So it's really a bottleneck for public research like ours."

Gerdts wants to attract more government funding for VIDO-InterVac to add manufacturing into its operation.

About the Author

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a master's in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC

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