There are now more than 70 vaccines currently being developed globally, including here in Canada, as research teams race to find a successful vaccine against the novel coronavirus and help countries escape lockdowns.
The World Health Organization said on April 13 that three potential vaccines for the virus are now in early-stage testing in volunteers in China and the U.S., but experts say there is still a long road ahead to find out if they work. Timelines for when a vaccine becomes widely available remain at 12 to 18 months.
At the University of Western Ontario, Chil-Yong Kang, a professor of virology, and his team have been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week to find a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Their work is being built on research done for a vaccine candidate Kang previously produced for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), caused by a coronavirus similar to the one that causes COVID-19.
Coronaviruses invade human cells through so-called “spike proteins” — the crowns or corona on the virus — which bind to cell receptors and then begin infection.
“If you make an antibody against that spike protein, it will cover up the spike and it will not be able to attach to the cell,” Kang said. “There you have a prevention of infection.”
Kang said his team is working to make six different versions of the vaccine candidate and hopes to have human trials underway by July or August.
“We come in every day, and lab workers are here sometimes 12 or 13 hours a day,” he said. “We have both a responsibility and a deep sense of duty to end this COVID-19 pandemic.”
Other Canadian universities at work on a vaccine include Dalhousie University, McMaster University, the University of Alberta, Laval University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba.
After vaccines are found to be safe through lab and animal testing, they generally go through four phases.
The first phase of clinical trials works in small groups of volunteers to test out different versions or doses of the vaccine.
Some of the first volunteers rolled up their sleeves and received shots of a vaccine candidate, code-named mRNA-1273, in the United States in mid-March. The vaccine is being developed by the National Institutes of Health and Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna Inc.
Also in the U.S., Pennsylvania-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals began a Phase 1 trial last week of its vaccine candidate, which also focuses on the “spike protein.”
Phase 2 trials are generally done in a larger number of people to evaluate the efficacy of the vaccine candidate and whether it’s actually protecting against infection.
In China, CanSino Biologics is beginning the second phase of testing its vaccine candidate, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology said Tuesday. The company’s research is based on its work on the Ebola virus.
Phases 3 and 4 involve larger studies of the drug in larger groups of more than 1,000 people and then additional studies of the drug once it’s available to the public.
All of this can take up to 10 years for some vaccines and the process is now being fast-tracked, according to Bruce Clark CEO of Medicago, a Quebec-based company that announced a plant-based vaccine candidate last month that is currently in clinical studies.
“June and July is kind of the timeframe we are looking at right now for Phase 1 and 2 type of study that we’re doing,” he told Global News. “We are in discussions with Canadian and U.S. regulators about moving forward.”
Clark said researchers and regulators around the world are trying to balance safety with accelerated testing and trial. His company is optimistic a vaccine could be available in mid-2021 with “all the stars aligning.”
“I don’t know if exciting is the right word, but it’s unprecedented what is happening around the world,” he said. “I don’t think in history there has ever been such a concerted effort to focus on one disease.
“The race is not against companies but against this virus.”
Indeed, pharmaceutical giants Sanofi and GSK announced Tuesday that they have partnered to create a vaccine candidate.
Meanwhile, NIH infectious disease chief Dr. Anthony Fauci told The Associated Press this week there are “no red flags” so far in the testing and he hoped the next, larger phase of testing could begin around June.
He said if a vaccine is effective it could be ready “maybe toward mid- to late winter of next season.”
“Please let me say this caveat: That is assuming that it’s effective. See, that’s the big ‘if,’” Fauci stressed. “It’s got to be effective and it’s got to be safe.”
World leaders, including Justin Trudeau, have said that life won’t return to “normal” until a vaccine becomes available.
On Thursday, Trudeau said current social restrictions could be in place for “many weeks” until rapid COVID-19 testing is available on a wide-scale basis and extensive contact tracing is in place to prevent future outbreaks.
“It would be absolutely disastrous for us to open up too early or too quickly, and have another wave hit us that could be just as bad as this one, and find ourselves in the situation of having to go back into quarantine the way we are right now and have everything we’ve done these past weeks be for nothing,” Trudeau said.
—With files from the Associated PressView link »