MONTREAL ― As the COVID-19 lockdown draws on, it is beginning to dawn on Canadians that a return to normal ― a real return to normal ― means finding a vaccine or effective treatment for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
To that end, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in late March that Canada would commit $192 million to efforts to find a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19.
But even before that announcement, organizations across Canada had launched their own projects on the novel coronavirus, part of a massive and unprecedented worldwide effort to find the cure for a disease that has shut down normal life all over the world and killed 58,000 people as of April 3.
Watch: Companies race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Story continues below.
A key moment came on Jan. 10, when researchers in China released the genomic sequence for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Since then, no fewer than 60 vaccine projects have been launched around the world, by some estimates.
Another key moment came in early March, when researchers at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Medical Centre, the University of Toronto and McMaster University managed to isolate and culture the virus from two patients. This meant that lab-grown copies of the virus would be available for researchers around the world who are looking for a vaccine or treatment.
In the past few months, more than half a dozen projects have sprouted up across Canada in pursuit of a vaccine and using various different approaches to the problem. Here are some of the most promising ones.
University of Saskatchewan: Lessons from previous coronaviruses
The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization―International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan has been operating for decades, working on the SARS and MERS viruses, and successfully developing coronavirus vaccines for animals ― though none yet for humans.
In terms of getting government funding, their work was often a tough sell, CBC News reports, but the unprecedented disruption of COVID-19 has changed all that. The federal government announced a $23-million funding injection into the facility in March, where up to 30 per cent of staff are now reportedly working on COVID-19.
The centre’s CEO, Volker Gerdts, sounds very optimistic about vaccines VIDO-InterVac is currently testing in animals. He told CJWW radio in Saskatoon that he is confident they will have a working version, and other researchers involved in the project said at the end of March it was weeks away from early human trials.
Medicago: A plant-based “fake coronavirus”
You’ve heard of fake meat made from plants, but what about a fake virus made from plants?
Quebec City-based biopharma firm Medicago has created a “virus-like particle” by injecting material into a tobacco leaf, which then creates a protein that “looks like” the novel coronavirus. But because it doesn’t have the genetic material of the virus, it can’t do the sort of damage the real virus does.
The idea is that when injected into the human body, the fake virus causes the body’s immune system to respond, creating an immunity that works against the real virus.
Medicago, whose staff have links to Laval University and McGill University, among others, has been working for years on this technique, and was able to adapt it to the new coronavirus in just 20 days, the company said in a statement.
The company says the vaccine could be ready for human testing this summer, and its best-case scenario for roll-out is 18 months.
Western University: Aiming for maximum ImPaKT
Western University’s new Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation facility, or ImPaKT, has put together a group of experts in virology, microbiology, vaccinology, bioinformatics and immunology to work on a COVID-19 vaccine.
The researchers are building off of work done by Dr. Chil-Yong Kang at Shulich School of Medicine and Dentistry on MERS, a previous coronavirus that resulted in a deadly outbreak in 2012. The hope is that, because these two viruses are closely related, they can adapt the same strategies.
The researchers are also planning to create thousands of “seed vaccines” for other potential coronaviruses that could be transferred from animals like bats to humans. In essence, they would be creating potential vaccines for possible viruses that haven’t appeared in the human population yet. But in the future it could mean a much faster response time when a new coronavirus appears.
Entos Pharmaceuticals: Rewriting DNA
Edmonton-based biotech firm Entos is working on a relatively new kind of treatment known as a DNA vaccine. Unlike other vaccines, which prompt your body to develop an immunity to a disease, DNA vaccines inject pieces of DNA code into your cells, directly instructing the cells to produce an antibody that stops the virus.
Led by Dr. John Lewis of the University of Alberta, the company says it will have a vaccine ready for trials within weeks, and assuming human trials go well, it could have a vaccine ready within a year, Global News reports.
University of Alberta: What worked for cats…
Researchers at Edmonton’s University of Alberta are looking into whether a drug that cured an illness caused by a coronavirus in cats can be used for COVID-19 in humans.
The drug, developed after the 2003 SARS outbreak, is a “protease inhibitor” that stops the virus from replicating inside the host, and researchers in the U.S. recently showed it cured a feline coronavirus
If it works, this drug wouldn’t be a vaccine, but rather a treatment that could cure patients who are already sick. The researchers believe they’ll know within a few months if their protease inhibitor will work on COVID-19 patients.
Laval University: Better vaccines through nanoparticles
Laval University in Quebec City has launched a number of projects on COVID-19, but one of the more notable ones involves a project to use nanoparticles to make a better novel coronavirus vaccine.
Nanoparticles can now be designed to have very specific shapes and properties, and can be used to deliver vaccine ingredients in very specific ways. The upshot, researchers say, is that you can make a much more effective vaccine, and one that can work against viruses even if they evolve ― which viruses tend to do rather quickly.
AbCellera/Eli Lilly: Using survivors’ immunity
Vancouver-based biotech firm AbCellera Biologics has partnered with Indianapolis-based pharma giant Eli Lilly to develop drug therapies for COVID-19 based on the compounds found in the bodies of people who have recovered from the disease.
AbCellera researchers identified some 500 antibodies ― disease-fighting blood proteins ― that helped fight COVID-19 in patients. In partnership with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, they will now work to identify the strongest fighters, and find ways to turn that into a medicine that can boost patients’ ability to fight the virus.
This project has drawn a fair bit of attention, not least because Eli Lilly has the size and scale to bring a drug to market quickly worldwide. AbCellera hopes to begin testing a therapy in human patients within four months.