Dr. Volker Gerdts is already thinking about the next pandemic.
The director and CEO of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization — International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) and his team have been working on a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, since before it even had a name.
On January 21, just as the organization got federal approval to work on the vaccine and the first cases were confirmed in Washington State, he told Postmedia there was no knowing if the virus would fizzle out or spread across the globe.
If you’re reading this, you know what happened.
If there’s a silver lining to COVID-19, Gerdts wants it to be that people think about novel diseases the same way he does; not as sudden tragedies but as inevitabilities we can prepare for.
“We had always warned of the economic impact a pandemic might have, and I think this is just an example of what a pandemic can do,” Gerdts said.
VIDO-InterVac was first in Canada to isolate the virus and create an animal model and it’s one of the few sites in the country with a containment level 3 lab where the virus can be safely handled and tested. The 285,000-square foot high-security research facility specializes in diseases afflicting animals that have the potential to cross over to humans, such as coronaviruses. The level 3 lab is ringed by offices, some with windows looking into it, though only researchers in multiple head-to-toe layers of personal protective equipment can go inside.
The organization’s vaccine candidate has shown to be effective in ferrets and is now being tested in hamsters. They’ve submitted a vaccine development pathway that could see the first phase of human trials as early as this fall.
It’s not moving to human clinical trials as fast as candidates developed by American biotech company Moderna, the University of Oxford or China’s SinoVac, all of which are us ribonucleic acid (RNA) platforms. But Gerdts said that technology hasn’t been proven in humans before, whereas protein-based candidates like Vido-Intervac’s are tried and true.
The federal government has given more than $46 million to the organization to support ongoing testing and operating costs, while the province has added a $4.2 million contribution. Of the federal dollars, $12 million are bound for avaccine manufacturing facility, which Gerdts says will be able to make as many as 5 million vaccines a month to help fill Canada’s major gap in production capacity.
“We’re hopeful that VIDO is one of the leading candidates. We believe they are. I think the federal government believes they are.” Premier Scott Moe said Tuesday.
All of this is to help the lab, along with collaborators and scientists around the globe, condense years of work into months without sacrificing scientific rigour or accuracy.
And what’s that like?
“It’s been busy,” replies Dr. Darryl Falzarano, who leads research on the vaccine candidate. He says, candidly, that every day brings its own crisis. For all the public attention, Falzarano says he’s not flustered by the task ahead. You can’t rush science.
“With a vaccine, you have to immunize an animal, challenge it with the disease and wait one or two months,” Falzarano said. “You can’t just decide ‘we’re going to work harder and just let it go for five days.’ It’s a non-condensable time frame.”
That doesn’t mean they can’t do different things at the same time. Most vaccines are developed in stages: not so with COVID-19. Manufacturing, testing and development is happening in tandem, regardless of cost.
“That’s usually the holdup with this process,” Gerdts says of manufacturing. “That’s the difference with COVID-19 is that everything is happening in parallel, at the same time, understanding that you might waste millions of dollars on something that you might manufacture that doesn’t work.”
In the future, Gerdts thinks the world can do better. His ambition is that VIDO-InterVac becomes “Canada’s pandemic centre” that can produce vaccines for pathogens before they ever appear in humans.
He says the lab, using artificial intelligence and their expertise in zoonotic diseases, might be able to produce vaccine candidates for pathogens originating from animals before they appear in humans.
“We manufacture the vaccine, and it sits somewhere stockpiled like at the World Health Organization in Geneva, ready to go.” Gerdts says. “And then you wait until the disease breaks out and right away you have millions of vaccines ready.”
Previous outbreaks, like SARS or H1N1, have triggered short-lived publicity and spending on vaccine development and public health. It never lasts. By the time researchers at VIDO-InterVac came close to a SARS vaccine, the disease fizzled out, and with it any funding for potentially life-saving research.
Gerdts’ hope is that COVID-19 is a tipping point — a virus we can’t forget about.
“In a few years when this is over, other problems will come up and people will focus on that. It’s tough,” he said. “But I think this one because it’s such a global pandemic that is not over yet, it’s really different from any other experience we’ve had in our lifetimes. It will hopefully tell us and remind us all what the impact of an infectious disease can be.”