Partnership hopes to speed up production of key ingredient in potential COVID-19 vaccine

Volker Gerdts is the CEO of VIDO-InterVac (Photo courtesy University of Saskatchewan)

A partnership between the University of Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre  (VIDO-InterVac) and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is hoping to speed up the development and production of a key component that could be used for a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

In a press release issued Tuesday, the two groups announced they would work together to accelerate the development of a candidate COVID-19 antigen.

An antigen is a key component of a vaccine. VIDO-InterVac has found an antigen that will be used as the main part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine. VIDO-InterVac calls it a recombinant protein antigen. Recombinant means it’s manufactured artificially as opposed to being naturally occurring, while the word protein used in this context is a description of the type of molecule the antigen is.

“An antigen is part of a vaccine. It’s part of the virus being used to stimulate the immune system,” explained VIDO-InterVac CEO and director Dr. Volker Gerdts.

“What a vaccine is, is part of a pathogen we use to stimulate an immune response. The basis of the vaccine is the antigen.”

Vaccines work by providing the immune system with a sneak peek of the virus before it can become infected. This allows the immune system to prepare antibodies so that it’s ready should it encounter the actual virus. The antigen is that normally triggers an immune response, causing your immune system to create antibodies to fight it.

The antigen identified by VIDO-InterVac has been produced at a laboratory scale. Animal studies are underway to determine it’s effectiveness.

Now, the NRC will see if it can use its proprietary mammalian cell line to develop a way to scale up the production of the antigen for future pre-clinical and clinical studies.

A cell line consists of living cells descended from a single cell, allowing for it to reproduce into a large number of cells with an identical genetic makeup. The NRC has a mammalian cell line useful in producing biologic medicines such as vaccines. The cell line has previously been used to produce other vaccines proven in clinical trials and licensed for distribution.

“What VIDO is doing is we do vaccine research and we’re testing prototype vaccine candidates in our animal models,” Gerdts said.

“As we see the responses in these animals, the next thing is to manufacture them and make sure we can produce millions. This is where (the research council) is coming in, to help us look at the production and manufacturing side of it.”

Gerdts said the research council’s cell line helps to ensure that the antigen, and by extension the vaccine, would be made the same way each time and that every vial would have the same amount of antigens with the same level of quality.

“When we make vaccines, we need to make sure it is always made the same way,” he said.

Ferrets and hamsters have been used by VIDO-Intervac in its testing. Gerdts said the ferrets have received two immunizations and were then exposed to the virus, so he’s hopeful there will be good news to share in a few days.

If that’s the case, the summer will be spent addressing the safety of the vaccine and human trials will start in the fall.

If all goes well, that could mean a viable vaccine by next spring.

VIDO-InterVac has been working on COVID-19 since January before the virus was declared a global pandemic. It was one of the first organizations in the world to develop an effective pre-clinical animal model to test medicines against COVID-19.

VIDO-InterVac is one of several national and international labs trying to work as quickly as possible to develop a vaccine.

The organization has found success in creating vaccines for other coronaviruses in the past. COVID-19 is a new, or novel, coronavirus. Other viruses in this family include SARS, MERS and several coronaviruses that have been detected in cows and pigs.

VIDO-Intervac has worked on MERS and has successfully created vaccines for coronaviruses in cows and pigs.

“There was a big outbreak in pigs just a few years ago, and we developed a vaccine in less than 18 months,” Gerdts said.

“We understand coronavirus infections, we understand what you need to have in a vaccine. All the experience working with these coronaviruses informs us in finding what the best might be for COVID-19.