Saskatoon lab CEO details human trials for Canadian COVID-19 vaccine that doesn't need 'complicated storage'
The University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization - International Vaccine Centre. (Chad Hills/CTV Saskatoon)
SASKATOON -- As the rollout of a limited supply of Moderna and Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccines continues to gain steam across the country, the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) is expected to start delivering the first doses of its own vaccine candidate this week as part of a recently-approved human clinical trial.
The lab's director and CEO Dr. Volker Gerdts joined CTV News at Five anchor Jeremy Dodge to explain how the trial will work, how participants are selected and why VIDO's Canadian-made coronavirus vaccine candidate may have some advantages over Pfizer and Moderna's offerings. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It's been an interesting couple of months for you and what you do so, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have arrived. How is the VIDO developed vaccine different?
We're working on what is called a protein subunit vaccine. It's a slightly different technology, and it's a technology that we purposely chose because it has lots of advantages, it doesn't require complicated storage, like the ultra-low freezer temperatures. It's fairly easy to make, it's cost-effective and it's a proven technology and is in a number of human vaccines for hepatitis B for diphtheria for tetanus for whooping cough. All of those are based on this technology and that's why we chose it.
What is the timeline to see this out and ready for deployment?
So we had some very very good news shortly before Christmas. Health Canada has now given a green light to start our clinical trials. So we in fact are now in the process of selecting volunteers and then starting the first immunizations, hopefully within the next week or so.
How do these trials work? Can you go into detail on who is taking part where this is happening, how do the trials play out exactly?
So we're doing what is called a "combined" phase one, phase two. So phase one is really looking at the safety of the vaccine and so for that we have three age groups. We start with a middle-age group so 18 to 54, then have 55 to 65 and then one above (65). So we're starting with the 18 to 54, we have a total of 108 individuals that are enrolled in the phase one study, and it's happening in Halifax at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology, which is one of probably the best clinical trial sites in Canada.
So that's phase one and we looking for any possible negative reactions to the vaccine. So this is all about assessing the safety of the vaccine and our animal studies have revealed that there are no safety concerns, but the regulator wants you and of course, we all want to confirm this again in humans.
Then we roll automatically over into what is called a phase two trial and that is an answer to 'How well does the vaccine stimulate an immune response?' and for that we have hundreds, in fact it's 1500 individuals, that are enrolled in these studies and they will be done at multiple sites in Canada so not only Halifax, hopefully also here in Saskatoon.
You talked about people who have enrolled How does one become a part of this? How can I be a subject for the VIDO vaccine or anything down the line?
I have received so many phone calls and emails over the holidays, people volunteering to be part of these trials. Initially, as I mentioned, it starts in Halifax and they're in Halifax, at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology. That's what they do. They are very good at recruiting people to become a part of these studies. Then they are they're assigned to these groups without their knowledge so they don't know whether they get the vaccine are they're controlled and then they're being monitored. There are 11 visits that are involved for each of these individuals past immunization and so that's when they are then being monitored for any possible adverse reactions.
This all happened so quickly. What was it like being given this job? I mean you only got into your position in 2019, all of a sudden here's this new virus we haven't seen before. Now, here make something that makes us immune to it and do it in the shortest time possible. What was that challenge like?
Crazy. It was crazy for all of us, but you know I'm so proud of the team we have here. We have some of the world's best scientists working here at VIDO-InterVac, we have some of the world's best infrastructure right here in Saskatoon, we operate Canada's largest high containment facility. So were ready to go. I mean this is why we're here, this is what VIDO-InterVac is all about. We were the first in the country to isolate the virus the first to have an animal model established, the first to have a vaccine in preclinical testing. And, you know, this is, this is why we're here. This is what we trained for and this is now our time to do exactly that.
All right now, there there was some surprise about Canada's lack of vaccine manufacturing, is there something being done about that?
Yeah, so we're in fact building a vaccine manufacturing facility right here in-house at VIDO-Intervac. We've been telling, all levels of government about the need for manufacturing facilities in the country for quite a while and it's good to see that now all the funding is in place. We're constructing a facility currently if you if you drive by our building at the moment you see the construction workers on-site right now. So the manufacturing facility will be constructed and completed by 2021. So this year and hopefully if everything goes well, early next year we can start manufacturing vaccines right here in Saskatoon.
What this is really all about I think is providing us with the ability to help the country to be better prepared for the next emerging disease and so while we're dealing with COVID-19 I think the lessons learned from this are that we need to have the infrastructure, in-house manufacturing and also some of the world's best scientists specifically focused on emerging diseases so that we can quickly respond. So what we will be talking about is these national centres that are focused on emerging diseases and that's that's the vision we have for the future.
There is a level of pride here being in Saskatoon and seeing what you guys have accomplished at VIDO. Thank you Dr. Gerdts and good luck moving forward.
Thank you very much.