Province announces funding to support pandemic research

Herald File Photo.

Vaccine and pandemic research in the province will be receiving a boost after the province announced that they are committing $15 million of new funding to the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan.

In a press conference with VIDO Director Dr. Volker Gerdts on Tuesday, Premier Scott Moe announced the funding, which is contingent on the federal government providing $45 million in funding that the province has requested.

Moe explained that vaccine scarcity in the world shows the need for projects of this type adding that Canada can lead in research and development through facilities like VIDO’s proposed Centre for Pandemic Research.

“This will not only serve Saskatchewan residents but it will serve all Canadians through research, development and ultimately the production of new vaccines. This would be a level 4 containment facility,” Moe said.

The provincial funding commitment is contingent on the Government of Canada committing and flowing funds to the project, which has already received committed funding committed by the City of Saskatoon and significant contributions from several private donors.

Moe explained that the funding would greatly enhance the facilities research and development capabilities. Currently the only level 4 facility in Canada is the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg and they have expressed support for the idea. Moe and Minister for Innovation Saskatchewan Jeremy Harrison have written and have had conversations with senior federal ministers about the proposal.

“We are hopeful and quite confident that we will be able to obtain the necessary federal support for this project to go ahead,”

VIDO has already begun to expand their vaccine manufacturing capabilities with a project that began in October 2020 and expected to be completed in October 2021.

“Production of vaccines could then begin sometime in 2022 with the capability to produce up to 40 million vaccines per year,” Moe said.

He added that the development of that project would not make a change to the current COVID-19 vaccination drive in the province where they expect Saskatchewan residents to be vaccinated by the end of 2021.

“However we should be ready to produce millions of doses of vaccines to respond to any new viruses that may present or variance of the COVID-19 virus that may present in the future and respond as required,”

Moe expects the province to be a leader in producing and developing vaccines for all Canadians.

“We are asking the federal government and the Prime Minister to support this proposal to insure that Canada always has the ability to develop and produce our own lifesaving vaccines and to insure that the vaccine shortage that we are experiencing now at the most critical moment in our lifetime never happens again,” Moe said.

Gerdts thanked the province for the commitment and called it fantastic news for VIDO and will allow them to establish their Canadian Centre for Pandemic Research. He explained that it would benefit both humans and livestock.

“It will help us to prepare and be better prepared for future emerging diseases both affecting humans and animals and it will build on existing infrastructure that we already have at the University of Saskatchewan,” Gerdts said.

VIDO is already home to the countries largest high containment laboratory and soon will have vaccine manufacturing capabilities. Gerdts explained that the existing elements are critical to rapidly responding to new and emerging diseases.

“What today’s announcement and hopefully the commitment from the federal government will allow us to do is to now build on that existing infrastructure and leverage those previous investments to upgrade our containment abilities to the highest level,” Gerdts said.

They will also allow the organization to build a new animal facility to work with animals that new diseases emerge from. Gerdts explained VIDO’s track record as the first to isolate the COVID-19 virus and an animal model to test vaccines.

“We are now also the first university lab to actually have a vaccine in clinical trials, our trials are ongoing right now, we are in phase one and phase two trials and we are looking forward to taking our vaccine into development as that is possible,” Gerdts said.

The province’s commitment will support VIDO’s Centre for Pandemic Research, which will include an upgrade to Level 4 containment facilities. Containment Level 4 laboratories provide the capability to work safely with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases

“Today’s announcement is really a great honour for us and great for the organization and we are looking forward to the federal government to come up with the $45 million that we have asked for plus some operating funding,” Gerdts said.

According to Gerdts, VIDO is already doing research on emerging variants with the UK variant already being worked on in their facility. He explained that they are testing if their vaccine and other Canadian vaccines are effective against the variants and have adjusted their own vaccine to the variant so in the future it will be more effective.

VIDO was originally designed and built to accommodate the possible future enhancement to Level 4 containment capability. This includes 2000 square feet of existing lab space that can be readily upgraded to meet Level 4 containment requirements The Centre will also provide critical animal housing for multiple species and significantly reduce the time required to advance vaccine development to human clinical trials. In addition, this Centre for Pandemic Research gives VIDO the capacity to develop the workforce and train the talent needed for a strong vaccine and therapeutic ecosystem in Canada. Since the beginning of the pandemic the province has provided VIDO-InterVac with additional funding of $4.2 million to support the development of a COVID-19 vaccine and construct a new small-scale manufacturing facility to be completed later this year. This funding is in addition to annual operations funding of $3.8 million in 2019-20 and $4.1 million in 2020-21.