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COVID-19 and the escalation of variants of concern underline the fact that emerging diseases require a rapid response, and Canada needs to be prepared for the next pandemic, says Dr. Volker Gerdts, director and CEO of the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO).

“Why do we have to wait until an infectious disease emerges before we develop vaccines?” says Dr. Gerdts. “Why can’t we predict the next pathogen, so we have vaccines available when the disease breaks out? It sounds naïve and like we are dreaming, but that’s where the field is going – and VIDO will be part of this.”

The idea of having adaptable vaccine platform technologies is part of Dr. Gerdts’s vision for VIDO as a National Centre for Pandemic Research. VIDO was the first organization in Canada to isolate the virus that causes COVID-19 and develop an animal model of the disease. One of VIDO’s two subunit vaccine candidates is currently in clinical trials in Halifax at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology.

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“VIDO, in my mind, has really become one of Canada’s go-to places for COVID-19 research. Over the last 12 months, we have worked with more than 80 companies, 40 of them Canadian,” says Dr. Gerdts. “Many of the Canadian vaccines currently in development, that work was done here at VIDO.”

With other vaccines already in use, why is it important this research continues?

Research and development need to continue beyond the current pandemic to further explore the duration of immunity, storage conditions, cost, accessibility and the ability to combine COVID-19 vaccines from different suppliers.

The rise in COVID-19 variants also adds to the urgency to get vaccinated.

“The clinical studies have confirmed that all of the approved vaccines are safe. The recommendation is that when it is your turn, take the vaccine you are offered,” Dr. Gerdts urges.

Scientists are currently determining how effective their vaccines are in fighting these new variants. “It is very important to ensure that our vaccine protects against these variants too,” he says. “We are currently testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the variants and determining whether we need to adapt it slightly so it will match those variants.

“We have South African and U.K. variants in our containment level 3 facility at VIDO, and we’re using animal models to demonstrate that our vaccine works against these variants. We are also taking blood samples from volunteers involved in our clinical studies and confirming their antibodies neutralize the variants.”

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The clinical studies have confirmed that all of the approved vaccines are safe. The recommendation is that when it is your turn, take the vaccine you are offered.

Dr. Volker Gerdts
Director and CEO of the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO)

An additional goal is to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine that could provide protection against multiple strains or clusters of viruses.

While the world is still battling with COVID-19, the next emerging disease is just around the corner. A key lesson from this pandemic is that Canada needs to develop a preparedness strategy that will allow the nation to rapidly respond to any new emerging disease – whether it is human or animal. This includes having infrastructure, expertise and partnerships in place.

Towards this end, VIDO has the specialized containment facilities, the basic and applied research expertise necessary to identify new and emerging threats for vaccine discovery, and is establishing vaccine manufacturing capacity to ensure these innovations are produced in Canada and available for Canadians.

VIDO is strengthening its partnership model by developing a national centre of pandemic research that will include nationwide access for academics, government agencies and companies to high-containment laboratory space, vaccine manufacturing capacity and a wide range of readily accessible animal models for pre-clinical testing of vaccines and therapeutics.

VIDO aims to expand its research capacity to ensure it can work with any virus by upgrading areas of its containment level 3 agriculture facility to the highest level (containment level 4). This would significantly increase Canada’s containment level 4 space, enabling research and vaccine development on all infectious diseases, and would provide surge capacity for government agencies.

The organization is also part of the effort to re-establish Canada’s domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity and has already received funding from the Government of Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan. The facility will allow multiple types of human and animal vaccines and antibody innovations, developed in Canada, to be further advanced and commercialized in Canada. This includes subunit, inactivated, attenuated and vectored vaccines. Construction will be completed this year, and the facility will then be certified to good manufacturing practice standards by Health Canada before production can begin.

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VIDO also aims to expand its pre-clinical research and development capacity with a new containment level 2 animal facility that will house a wide range of animals. These investments in science will help Canada end this pandemic and prepare for the next emerging infectious disease.

“A lot of collaborative work is being completed,” says Dr. Gerdts.

There are lessons to be gleaned from this pandemic – the scientific collaboration and pan-Canadian facilities like VIDO will help ensure our nation has the capacity and expertise to be much better prepared.

Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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