Ferrets, a Saskatoon lab and the leading edge of the race for a coronavirus vaccine

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Ferrets, a Saskatoon lab and the leading edge of the race for a Coronavirus vaccine
WATCH: Saskatoon's VIDO-Intervac lab is getting ready to test a coronavirus vaccine on ferrets, which they believe are genetically capable of becoming infected – Mar 5, 2020

A Saskatoon-based lab is at the forefront of the global race to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

They now have a virus isolate in their lab, have generated a vaccine based on the isolate and are in the process of testing both on living animals.

Their test-mammal of choice, ferrets.

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“There’s a little bit of experience from the SARS outbreak, and from other viruses like this one,” said Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) director & CEO Volker Gerdts.

“So we think the ferret is probably the best model for this virus.”

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Gerdts says observing the disease in animals, or creating an “infection model”, is the first step to creating any vaccine.

The reason ferrets have become the proverbial guinea pig is due to their ability to become infected by this particular virus.

“You have to have a model where animals are showing symptoms similar to what we see in humans,” Gerdts said.

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He says with the vaccinations underway, the ferrets will be exposed to the virus itself over the coming weeks. He says if the vaccine is effective in its first trial, work to determine its safety for human use will get underway.

From there, manufacturing would begin before the vaccine would head to clinical trial.

“Ideally you demonstrate proof of concept in another animal species. There’s monkeys and non-human primates that are being used too,” he explained.

Gerdts said that while the clinical trial phase is still months away at the earliest, his lab’s work puts it at the leading edge in the race to fight the emerging epidemic.

“We’re among a handful of other labs around the world. We’re just at the forefront like they are.”

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The virus isolate was obtained from the Public Health Agency of Canada. It originated from one of Ontario’s confirmed cases of COVID-19.

A “level 3 pathogen”, it’s being worked on under purpose-built containment at VIDO-Intervac at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

Gerdts said his team is also in the process of creating an in-house vaccine manufacturing facility in order to accelerate this or any new vaccine towards the clinical trial phase.

“We’re very proud to be part of it. We have some of the best scientists in the world working right here in Saskatoon and it’s a pleasure to work with them and put a lot of extra effort into this right now.”

It was announced on Friday that nearly $1 million over two years had been awarded to develop animal models and test vaccine candidates for effectiveness and safety against the new coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2.

The project led by USask’s VIDO-InterVac research team is part of a $26.7-million federal rapid research funding initiative aimed at contributing to global efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

USask officials said the ferret model was a valuable model for SARS-CoV research and is the gold standard for respiratory infection modelling. They added SARS-CoV-2 has almost 80 per cent similarity to SARS-CoV.

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At a minimum, team lead Darryl Falzarano said he  expects the project will result in identifying animal models that replicate aspects of the disease in humans.

“We are now making a vaccine at VIDO-InterVac and once the animal model is available, we will be able to test the vaccine candidate because we have the virus and have been able to isolate and grow it,” Falzarano said in a press release.

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

VIDO-InterVac also said on Friday it’s building a pilot-scale vaccine manufacturing facility to help improve Canada’s response and emergency preparedness to emerging threats such as SARS-CoV-2.

-With files from Thomas Piller

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