COVID-19 vaccine research takes on new urgency

Canadian and international scientists racing to develop a potential vaccine face a long road.

Multiple vaccine efforts taking place in Canada and around the world

A model of a coronavirus vaccine design is seen on a screen at the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the U.S. National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, Md., on March 3. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/Bloomberg/Getty)

Medical researchers are working on multiple approaches to experimental vaccines to protect against COVID-19.

The federal government announced $2.7 million in funding for vaccine candidates.

Internationally, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil organizations, is investing more than $23 million US in the development of new vaccines against COVID-19.

France's president has announced a video summit of G7 leaders on Monday to discuss co-ordinating research on vaccines and treatments as well as an economic response to the pandemic.

A vaccine would prevent the pandemic from spreading as fast as it is now, said Charu Kaushic, scientific director of Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Institute of Infection and Immunity.

"It's just spreading everywhere," she said. "If we had a vaccine, we could control it."

Kaushic said instead of putting all its eggs in one basket, CIHR is funding multiple projects in the hopes that at least one of them will work.

2 elements to a successful vaccine 

To work, a vaccine needs to succeed in getting our immune system to produce antibodies in the blood. The antibodies recognize, remember and defend against the virus if you're exposed to it.

Kaushic, an immunologist and HIV vaccine researcher at McMaster University, said because COVID-19 is a lung infection, any vaccine needs to protect specifically against the virus getting into the lungs.

"Vaccines can fail because you can get very good antibodies and other things that work great in the blood, but not in the lungs. "You may not get protective immunity at all."

An Israeli scientist works at a laboratory at the MIGAL Research Institute in northern Israel this month, where efforts are underway to produce a vaccine against COVID-19. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty)

Viruses, especially new ones, are particularly difficult because they aren't well understood. For SARS-CoV2, the virus at the centre of the pandemic, scientists are still learning about how it is transmitted.

Even though multiple researchers are working on the problem, it is rare to get a new vaccine in under a year.

A top U.S. health official told a House committee that human trials for a potential vaccine could begin within a few weeks with the goal of going into the arms of the general public within 12 to 18 months.

Vaccine in a year? 

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been working with biotech company Moderna to develop a vaccine to prevent COVID-19.

"I want to make sure people understand, and I've said that over and over again, that does not mean we have a vaccine that we can use," NIH director Dr. Anthony Fauci said. "We mean it's record time to get it tested. It's going to take a year to a year-and-a-half to really know if it works."

Moderna's vaccine uses genetic material from the virus in the form of nucleic acid. That tells the human body how to make proteins that mimic viral proteins and this should provoke an immune response.

Currently the pandemic coronavirus has infected more than 130,000 people worldwide. While most people have mild respiratory symptoms, a vaccine would be a safer way to protect people because it would reduce the risk of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Denis Leclerc, an infectious diseases researcher at Laval University in Quebec City, said the advantage of nucleic acid vaccines like Moderna's is that they're much faster to produce than other types.

Denis Leclerc and his colleagues at Laval University are hoping to develop a vaccine that could be stockpiled in case of future outbreaks. (Radio-Canada)

While relatively safe, nucleic acid vaccines are generally not the preferred strategy, Leclerc said, because they don't have the same safety record as the traditional approach.

Leclerc's team has a different approach. They are working with a small part of a protein from the virus that can be synthesized quickly and then attached to a platform to trigger an efficient immune response in humans.

"I was thinking of still using proteins to conserve very high safety and still get speed," Leclerc said.

His team has animal data showing this approach might work for coronavirus and for other viruses that emerge in future.

Leclerc expects the proof-of-concept experiments for his COVID-19 vaccine will be ready in six months.

Even though it's fast to develop, it may come too late for the current pandemic of COVID-19.

That's what happened with Canada's Ebola vaccine. The experiments happened years previously, but the vaccine wasn't manufactured in time for the 2014 epidemic that ravaged West Africa. The Ebola vaccine is being used now to control Congo's outbreak.

Elsewhere in Quebec City, the biotech firm Medicago is producing another potential COVID-19 vaccine that uses particles that mimic the virus.

Researchers will mass produce that vaccine candidate quickly in plants instead of the slower traditional way of using animal cells or eggs. The company is using the same approach to produce seasonal flu vaccines, in an effort under review by Health Canada.

With files from Reuters