How a lab in Sask. that focuses on animals became Canada's $23M hope for a COVID-19 vaccine

In the global race to find a COVID-19 vaccine, the federal government announced Monday it is pumping $23 million into an academic research lab in Saskatoon. Here is a look at how the facility that started out as a modest veterinary lab in 1975 became Canada's best hope for a vaccine. 

Finding a pan-coronavirus vaccine has never been a winning pitch for grant money — until now

Darryl Falzarano, a research scientist at VIDO-InterVac in Saskatoon, is working on developing a vaccine for COVID-19. (Debra Marshall Photography)

In the global race to find a COVID-19 vaccine, the federal government announced Monday it is pumping $23 million into an academic research lab in Saskatchewan. 

The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization - International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan started as a modest veterinary lab in 1975. But it has evolved into a world class facility that the Trudeau government is betting can develop a vaccine to stop the pandemic.

The Saskatoon lab already has a head start. It has been working on coronavirus vaccines, primarily for animals, for four decades, including successful vaccines for cattle and pigs.

Today, the vaccine centre is one of only a few high-level containment facilities in the world able to conduct research on a vaccine for COVID-19.

In a wide-ranging interview Friday, VIDO-InterVac research scientist Darryl Falzarano and associate director Paul Hodgson told CBC News that in the past, generating interest in funding research into a pan-coronavirus vaccine for humans has been a challenge.

While the focus is now on stopping COVID-19, Hodgson said finding a pan-coronavirus vaccine is their "vision statement," much like a universal flu vaccine has been a goal of scientists for decades.

 "That's something we've never been able to get funding for," said Falzarano.

Falzarano, left, says the lab's goal has long been to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

But that has all changed, at least for the foreseeable future. Today, there are 160 people working at the lab — and up to 30 per cent of them are working on a coronavirus vaccine.

The Public Health Agency of Canada gave VIDO-InterVac the green light to start researching a vaccine for humans in late January. Researchers isolated the virus from a sample and have since grown the virus in a cell culture and are now testing a vaccine candidate in animals.

One of the questions Hodgson says he gets asked frequently these days is, "Why can't you do a vaccine faster?"

The answer is complicated.

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The federal government's multimillion-dollar funding announcement, part of a global push to develop a vaccine, comes in the middle of an international health crisis that has already killed more than 18,000 people worldwide. As of Tuesday, Canada had more than 2,700 COVID-19 cases, resulting in 27 deaths.

Over the past two decades there have been global outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), both caused by coronaviruses. But when the outbreaks subsided, so did the research into a vaccine.

In 2003, VIDO-InterVac was part of the rush to develop a SARS vaccine in Canada, dubbed the SARS Accelerated Vaccine Initiative. Although promising candidates were developed in a relatively short period of time, ultimately a vaccine for SARS was never put through trials and no vaccine exists today.   

"Until MERS came along [in 2012], there probably wasn't that strong of evidence that a coronavirus would be something that we should worry about, and that's going to happen again," Falzarano said.

VIDO-InterVac associate director Paul Hodgson says finding funding for the lab's coronavirus research has been difficult in the past. (VIDO-InterVac)

Hodgson said scientists are using knowledge gained from SARS and MERS. But for years prior to the current outbreak, finding a pan-coronavirus vaccine for humans wasn't a priority for governments or the big pharmaceutical companies. And when it comes to finding vaccines, the research follows the money.

Two years ago, VIDO-InterVac earned a four-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the federal government's funding agency. The government of Saudi Arabia also kicked in grant money. The research project? A vaccine that stops the transmission of MERS from camels to humans.

"We've been working more immediately on MERS vaccines and always moving, very slowly, looking at different ways you could start to try to sell the concept better of a pan-coronavirus vaccine," Falzarano said. "It's disappointing to me. It's something that I planned to do when I worked here and then it seemed clear that nobody was too interested in [funding] that concept."

Now, funding vaccine research has become imperative. The Trudeau government has committed $11 million to VIDO-InterVac's vaccine research and an additional $12 million to increase manufacturing capabilities for clinical trials.

According to Hodgson, Canada's capacity to manufacture a vaccine domestically is concerning.

Researchers at VIDO InterVac use alpacas as part of their MERS vaccine research on transmission from camels to humans. (VIDO-InterVac)

"From a national security or emergency preparedness perspective, the manufacturing capacity we have has really started to go down," Hodgson said.

VIDO-InterVac had been pushing the Canadian government to increase manufacturing capacity.

'Our ultimate goal'

Three times a week, scientists from the Saskatoon lab start their long day on an early morning conference call with the World Health Organization as they spearhead Canada's contribution to the global effort to find a vaccine.

So far, Canada is one of 10 countries participating in a research network the WHO calls Solidarity, which is sharing COVID-19 vaccine research.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, told a news conference Friday that international co-operation will provide the level of data necessary to determine the most effective treatments.

As of Friday, neither the U.S. nor China were listed by the WHO as participating in the Solidarity trials.

Back at VIDO-InterVac, the team is focused squarely on developing a vaccine to protect the world. 

"That's our ultimate goal," Hodgson said. "It would be fantastic if we developed a cure and made $100 million and were self-sufficient from this point forward, but our vision is protecting Canada and the world from infectious diseases."


Scott Anderson

Producer, the fifth estate

Scott Anderson is a producer at the fifth estate. He has been an investigative journalist in both print and broadcast. He has covered stories at city hall, across the country and around the world.

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