The 12-member research team is led by Darryl Falzarano of VIDO-InterVac. (Photo: Debra Marshall)

USask unites: VIDO-InterVac-led research team at USask awarded almost $1M to fight new coronavirus

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were announced in the province, members of the USask community have come together to support on another in these uncertain times. Extraordinary circumstances have brought out extraordinary responses from members of our USask community. From frontline health-care workers to researchers looking for a solution to this global health threat, there are so many stories about people are working to make our home communities safer and healthy. Here are a few of the inspiring stories of our students, staff, faculty and alumni.

By USask Research Profile and Impact

A University of Saskatchewan (USask) research team and collaborating scientists from across the country have been awarded almost $1 million over two years 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 Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) is part of a $26.7-million federal rapid research funding initiative aimed at contributing to global efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s fantastic that the funders have fast-tracked this process to help worldwide efforts against this new virus,” said Dr. Volker Gerdts, project co-applicant and director of VIDO-InterVac. “VIDO-InterVac’s Containment Level 3 facility was built specifically to develop solutions to global emerging infectious disease threats such as SARS-CoV-2.”

The 12-member team led by Darryl Falzarano of VIDO-InterVac includes scientists from Dalhousie University, the National Microbiology Laboratory, the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease, and the University of Manitoba.

“VIDO-InterVac has developed several coronavirus vaccines for animals, but there are still no commercial coronavirus vaccines for humans,” said Falzarano. “This collaboration enables us to test multiple species for susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection simultaneously and use the most suitable model to expedite vaccine development.”

Animal models enable scientists to understand how a virus causes disease and is transmitted, as well as to evaluate vaccines, antiviral medications, and drugs to protect animals and humans.

“The global race is on to find out which is the best animal model for replicating the disease observed in humans. Is it mice, hamsters, or ferrets? Whichever model works best is the one we’re going to use. Once the model is developed, we will then be able to test our vaccine candidates for effectiveness,” said Gerdts. “We will make the models available to other investigators who have leading candidate vaccines, antiviral drugs and immunity-boosting therapies.”

The researchers hope to better understand key issues, including transmission between animals, impact of age on disease, and susceptibility of common agricultural animals such as chickens, turkeys and pigs.  

“Our predictions suggest that both chickens and pigs would theoretically be susceptible to the virus,” said Falzarano. “We need to know: can they be infected? If so, do they become diseased, and do they shed virus?”

At a minimum, he expects the project will result in identifying animal models that replicate aspects of the disease in humans. The ferret model was a valuable model for SARS-CoV research and is the gold standard for respiratory infection modelling. SARS-CoV-2 has almost 80 per cent similarity to SARS-CoV.

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

Other VIDO-InterVac scientists involved in the project include Dr. Vladi Karniychuk, Qiang Liu, and Sylvia van den Hurk.

With one of the most advanced Containment Level 3 facilities in the world and an interdisciplinary scientific team, VIDO-InterVac is ideally positioned to lead the project, Falzarano said. VIDO-InterVac is well-recognized for developing animal models for human diseases including models for MERS-CoV, Zika, tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and pertussis.

To help improve Canada’s response and emergency preparedness to emerging threats such as SARS-CoV-2, VIDO-InterVac is building a pilot-scale vaccine manufacturing facility.

“Having a manufacturing facility would enable us to make a large amount of clinical-grade vaccine for early testing for human trials and animal models. This would help significantly reduce the response time in developing a vaccine during these emergent situations,” said Falzarano.  

Federal funding for the 47 projects across Canada is through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and Genome Canada (GC).

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