At a time when the entire world has never been more focused on vaccine development, one of Canada’s leading researchers in the field had some positive words for delegates to the 2021 Banff Pork Seminar (BPS) earlier this winter.
During a virtual conference presentation, Volker Gerdts, the director and CEO of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) in Saskatoon, Sask. gave BPS delegates some highlights from the fast-paced world of modern vaccine development.
VIDO has 45 years of history in vaccine research and development with an outstanding reputation in Canada as well as globally. The organization has produced 10 vaccines in that time, of which six were world firsts.
In the current pandemic environment, the VIDO team was the first in Canada to isolate the COVID 19 virus and supply it to the network of researchers frantically working on the challenge. VIDO was also the first in Canada to establish an animal model and develop a COVID vaccine candidate. Human clinical trials with the vaccine are planned for early in 2021.
With Canada’s largest biocontainment infrastructure, VIDO can work with Level Three pathogens such as novel coronavirus as well as African Swine Fever. Gerdts said his VIDO team focuses on animal health but also recognizes the interface of animal and human diseases.
Viruses can spread in many ways but they need to get inside cells to replicate. They can take over cell mechanisms, allowing the viruses to reproduce themselves. The VIDO vaccine strategy is to try and block this reproduction process.
Gerdts said there are two main mechanisms for all vaccines to accomplish this. One is to develop antibodies which neutralize the adherence of the virus to the cell. The other is through the use of T-cells, which are cells that kill other cells.
Gerdts said there are several different types of vaccine technology in this rapidly evolving world.
- Live attenuated vaccines. The pathogen is attenuated or weakened and replicates but triggers and is controlled by a strong immune response.
- Inactivated (killed) vaccines. Pathogens cannot replicate. The vaccines are safe but require additional adjuvants.
- Recombinant (subunit) vaccines. Again they are weakened or only represent part of a pathogen. They are very safe but can have difficulties producing an immune response, without the help of adjuvants.
- Vectored vaccines. Rely on a viral or bacterial vector. They have the advantage of being both live and inactivated vaccines, but their immunity against a vector can be a problem
- DNA and RNA vaccines. These are novel technologies that appear to be effective in experimental animals but use in humans and animals has not yet been fully explored.
The ideal vaccine
Whichever technology is used, the goal of vaccine development is the same, Gerdts said. Features would hopefully include:
- Fast onset and long duration of immunity
- Works after a single dose
- Highly effective, and can be both prophylactic and therapeutic
- Works in all groups including niche populations
- Safe with no side effects
- Easy to store, transport and administer
New vaccine production capacity
One big new development for VIDO and Canada is the construction of large-scale manufacturing facilities to make these vaccines. VIDO will be able to produce both human and animal vaccines in Canada with a capacity to produce 20 to 40 million doses a year. Construction of facilities will be completed in 2021 with production runs to start in 2022.
Gerdts said vaccines remain the most effective means of controlling infectious diseases. Several new vaccine technologies are in development and the time to produce a vaccine in the future will be much shorter than today.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity in Gerdts’ view is the new thinking that is driving vaccine development at VIDO.
“Our thinking today is why wait for the disease to break out? Even with accelerated development it means many millions of dollars in loss by the time you get a vaccine developed and approved for use. Why not predict what a pathogen would look like and develop a vaccine before the disease breaks out?
“We now have a much better idea of the structure of these pathogens. Through developments in bioinformatics and artificial intelligence, we can predict regions where pathogens could develop.”
With larger research facilities, VIDO can study how diseases jump species.
“So we can model in the lab what could happen in the real world and have a vaccine even before a disease breaks out,” Gerdts said. “These could be stored at the World Health Organization or OIE and when a disease breaks out a plane would take off and deliver the vaccine. Even if it is not 100 per cent effective to start with, it would at least help to contain the disease until improvements in the vaccine could be made.”