COVID-19 sparks changes in how vaccines are developed

Learning how to speed up work during the pandemic emergency is expected to also benefit the animal health field

The process of vaccine development in both people and livestock has been changed forever by COVID-19.

The urgent push to find a vaccine has shown companies and government regulatory agencies how to speed the process.

That has addressed the human emergency and is likely to be good for livestock vaccine development in the future, said Volker Gerdts, director and chief executive officer of Saskatoon-based VIDO-Intervac, the vaccine and infectious disease organization.

“I think the days of getting a vaccine developed and commercialized within 10 years or so are now over,” he told participants of the online Banff Pork Seminar.

“We’re seeing now much faster steps in developing vaccines. However, one should also not forget that right now a lot of resources are available for this research … billions of dollars into the development of these vaccines. That is not the norm.”

Money combined with the pressure to develop a COVID-19 vaccine allowed drug companies to drive multiple candidates forward and stagger trials even though they could lose millions on ineffective candidates, he said.

“The big picture here is, ‘let’s get to the market as quickly as possible.’ We can afford that during pandemics but we normally can’t afford it when it comes to diseases for which we don’t have vaccines.”

Facilities focused on emerging diseases and with the capability to contain pathogens, foster vaccine development and manufacture effective products are key to Canada’s ability to manage future disease outbreaks in people as well as animals, said Gerdts.

Construction on such a facility at VIDO Intervac is expected to be complete in 2021 and Gerdts said it will start vaccine production runs in 2022.

It’s also important that facilities can work with a wide range of animal species, to assist the livestock industry but also to protect humans because many diseases are zoonotic.

VIDO has been working on a vaccine against African swine fever, a fatal illness in pigs that has decimated hog herds in other countries, notably China, but has not yet entered North America.

Gerdts said the approach to ASF involves gene technology to derive a vaccine, which is much safer than working with live virus. DNA/RNA technology is the future of the field, he added.

“What we will see for sure in the future is the development of platform technologies … essentially a new pathogen comes in and you already have a pre-approved platform and then you just insert the sequence of the new pathogen and you’re ready to go. That’s really where the future is going to go.”

Hog producers listening to his presentation asked why there is not yet a vaccine for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), a viral disease that has long plagued the industry.

“I don’t have an answer there for you. I’ve been working on PRRS now for 10 years and it’s a career killer. It’s probably the most frustrating disease.”

PRRS is adept at evading pigs’ immune systems and mutates quickly so new versions of the virus can harbour in one pig.

Viruses including COVID-19, PRRS and ASF travel easily because they are so small. As an illustration, Gerdts said five to 10 viruses in a row would fit on the rim of a coin.

Viruses cannot live outside cells so they have mechanisms to get inside cells where they can replicate. The strategy for most vaccines against viruses is to prevent them from penetrating cell surfaces.

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