Canadian researchers make progress toward vaccine

"While the immediate response is crucial, longer-term solutions come from essential research into this novel virus.”


Rene Bruemmer, Montreal Gazette : A team of Canadian researchers from Ontario has isolated and grown copies of the coronavirus, the agent responsible for the outbreak of COVID-19 that has spread worldwide.

Sunnybrook , Dr. Samira Mubareka and Dr. Arinjay Banerjee

The isolated virus will help researchers in Canada and across the world develop better diagnostic testing, treatments and vaccines, and to gain a fuller understanding of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

At the same time, Quebec City biopharmaceutical company Medicago announced it has produced a virus-like particle of the coronavirus that may be able to produce a vaccine against COVID-19.

To date, the virus has infected more than 1 lac 25 thosand people in 118 countries and caused over 4 thousand 600 deaths in what the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. Canada has registered 152 confirmed case and one death.

Scientists from the Sunnybrook Research Centre, McMaster University and the University of Toronto cultured the virus from two clinical specimens in a Level 3 containment facility, Sunnybrook announced Thursday.

“We need key tools to develop solutions to this pandemic. While the immediate response is crucial, longer-term solutions come from essential research into this novel virus,” Dr. Samira Mubareka, microbiologist and infectious diseases physician at Sunnybrook, said in a statement.

“Now that we have isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we can share this with other researchers and continue this teamwork,” said Dr. Arinjay Banerjee of McMaster University. “The more viruses that are made available in this way, the more we can learn, collaborate and share.”

Meanwhile, Quebec City pharmaceutical firm Medicago announced it produced a virus-like particle of the coronavirus just 20 days after obtaining the SARS-SoV-2 virus gene. Production of the virus-like particle, the first step in developing a vaccine, will undergo preclinical testing. Medicago said is looking into human trials starting this summer.

The firm said it is also studying developing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in collaboration with the Laval University’s Infectious Disease Research Centre that could potentially treat people infected by the virus.

It’s estimated it will take one year to 18 months to develop a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. Approximately 10 vaccine candidates are now in the works worldwide, with one ready for clinical testing in April, but human testing and further trials take roughly another year to complete.

How vaccines work

The body’s white blood cells attack germs like viruses and bacteria by eating them, and leaving behind small traces of the invading germs called antigens. The body identifies the antigens as dangerous and white blood cells create antibodies to fight them, and attack cells in the body that have already been infected. After the infection has passed, the body keeps a few memory cells that allow the body to create antibodies again if a familiar antigen returns.

Vaccines work by imitating an infection, which causes the body to create antibodies and memory cells allowing the body to fight the disease in the future. The Centres for Disease Control notes that live vaccines contain a living virus or bacteria that has been weakened so it does not cause serious disease in people with healthy immune systems. Inactivated vaccines are made by killing the germs in the process of making the vaccine. In the case of flu vaccines, new ones need to be taken annually because the flu virus causing disease may change each year.

Creators of vaccines need to create a form of the virus so that the body learns to fight it off. But to use one too early on a new virus could result in unintended negative consequences, so researchers must conduct prolonged testing. There are still no vaccines for some diseases, like HIV or Hepatitis C, despite decades of research.

Chinese scientists made the coronavirus RNA sequence available to researchers worldwide on Jan. 10 to help create a vaccine. But it needs to be tested for months both on animal and human subjects to ensure it works properly.

There are also at least 80 clinical trials under way testing antivirals that have been used against other infections that can be used to treat people already infected with COVID-19, microbiology professor Ignacio López-Goñi wrote on The Conversation news site.

One already tested on humans is remdesivir, which has been tested against Ebola and SARS, and has shown some promising results with COVID-19. Another possibility is chloroquine, an antimalarial drug that has shown strong antiviral potential.