Saskatchewan researchers to help test possible COVID-19 vaccines

Saskatchewan researchers are part of a team of looking for solutions in the fight against the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan and collaborating scientists from across Canada have been awarded $1 million over two years to develop animal models and test vaccine candidates to combat COVID-19.

It’s part of $26.7 million in federal funding aimed at contributing to global efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

The 12-member team is led by Darryl Falzarano of VIDO-InterVac and includes scientists from Dalhousie University in Halifax; the National Microbiology Laboratory, which has a several locations; the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease in Winnipeg; and the University of Manitoba, also in Winnipeg.

“VIDO-InterVac has developed several coronavirus vaccines for animals, but there are still no commercial coronavirus vaccines for humans,” said Falzarano.

“This million dollars allows us to first develop an animal model to test for a human vaccine. Then secondly to develop a vaccine and thirdly to look at other important factors for COVID-19,” said Volker Gerdts, director of VIDO-InterVac.

VIDO-InterVac’s level three containment facility was built to develop solutions to global emerging infectious disease threats such as COVID-19.

Using ferrets as test animals for replicating the disease observed in humans, the researchers are first trying to understand animal-to-animal transmission.

Once the model is developed, they will be able to test their vaccine candidates for effectiveness.

The impact of age on disease is another key issue.

“For example, it looks like the disease is affecting the elderly more than it is affecting younger people. And so we will be using older animals to understand why that is,” Gerdts said.

The researchers are also studying domestic livestock and pets to see if they are susceptible to the disease.

“Can we have infection in those species too and if that was the case they could be potential reservoirs,” he said.

“So pigs could be a reservoir for this virus. This is an important question. And so we have, in partnership with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on this grant, we’re going to look at pigs, poultry and cattle to see if they would be a potential host.”

During the Zika virus outbreak, he said one of the first questions was whether mosquitoes that feed on cattle and pigs can be infected and transmit the disease to humans. There is no treatment available for Zika virus or its associated diseases.

“With Zika for example, it was found that it can get in pigs and it can actually infect pigs, but it doesn’t produce a lot of virus. So the risk of pigs shedding Zika virus into the environment is very, very low,” he said.

“So now the question for this new coronavirus is whether it can go into those species, whether they could be a source of infection for humans.”

Researchers expect to identify animal models that replicate aspects of the disease in humans.

“Our ultimate goal beyond this project is to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine that provides protection against multiple coronaviruses.”

Added Gerdts, “It’s a family (of coronaviruses) that has a lot of suspects for the next disease outbreak. By having a pan-coronavirus vaccine, something that covers all these coronaviruses, we would potentially be able to cover the next one or whatever that might look like.”

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