Sask. researchers aiming to develop a vaccine for coronavirus outbreak in China

Volker Gerdts at the University of Saskatchewan has requested to work with the virus through the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

VIDO-InterVac team has requested to work with the Wuhan strain of coronavirus

Medical staff carry a box as they walk at the Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China on January 10, 2020. (Reuters)

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are aiming to develop a vaccine that could help address an outbreak of coronavirus that has killed six people in China. 

On Monday, Chinese health officials on the frontline of the outbreak confirmed to state media that human-to-human transmission of the virus has occurred and the number of cases has more than tripled, according to the Associated Press.

The outbreak is believed to have started in a seafood market in the central-Chinese city of Wuhan, but it has since spread to Beijing and Guangdong. Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang told state television that 258 cases had been confirmed in the city, with six deaths.

The outbreak has since spread to Japan, Thailand and South Korea. The virus is linked to the same family of viruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed dozens of Canadians in 2002 and 2003.

Now, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization - International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) have requested to work with the virus through the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. 

"In house now we're designing strategies of how we can vaccinate for the disease and how we could test such a vaccine," said Volker Gerdts, executive director and CEO of VIDO-InterVac.

Volker Gerdts, CEO and executive director of VIDO-InterVac on the University of Saskatchewan campus, says the lab is in the early stages of developing a vaccine to treat a strain of coronavirus that is currently spreading throughout China and nearby countries. (Submitted by Debrah Marshall)

Gerdts said researchers at VIDO-InterVac have extensive experience with coronavirus, as the first vaccine for the virus in cattle was developed at the lab, with research around the virus continuing today.

However, Gerdts said they're now looking to develop a vaccine specifically for the virus affecting China, which has come to be known as the Wuhan strain. Since the sequence of the virus was just released last week, they're still in the very early stages of research.

"It's really driving innovation, driving technology, but it's not something that can happen overnight," he said.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, screening measures have been implemented at ports of entry in some neighbouring countries for passengers arriving from Wuhan.

"The Public Health Agency of Canada is actively monitoring the situation and working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international partners to gather additional information," said the agency on its website. 

It's also initiated new screening measures at Canadian airports in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, which will remind residents travelling from Wuhan to inform a border service officer if they experience flu-like symptoms. An extra health question will also be added to electronic immigration kiosks.

Gerdts said right now, the risk to Canadians is low, but noted if you develop flu-like symptoms, after flying to the affected areas, you should contact a public health office.

"There are a number of steps that we'll take from there, but really the chances are very, very low and so there's no reason at the moment to panic."

With files from CBC News, The Associated Press and Thomson Reuters