COVID-19 was recently declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. As we speak, a research lab in Canada has been working hard on a potential vaccine. The Saskatchewan team has been successful in their research so far, and have now pushed their COVID-19 vaccine to the testing stages. Narcity spoke to the director and CEO of the project to get an inside look at the process. 

In January 2020, the University of Saskatchewan announced they received permission from the Public Health Agency of Canada to begin working on a vaccine for COVID-19. 

The school's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) is now testing on animals

Director and CEO of VIDO-InterVac, Dr. Volker Gerdts, is currently in charge of working with a team of 30 fellow researchers on the project.

As director, CEO, and researcher, Gerdts helps in all aspects of the discovery, he explained to Narcity in an interview. 

The day to day life of these vaccine researchers can seem intense at first glance. Every Monday, the researchers, communications specialists, and experts like Gerdts get together to discuss their findings. 

In addition to their weekly meetings, they often take early morning phone calls from 15 other labs around the world where they all share ideas and findings.

While they are working hard to develop a global vaccine, Gerdts is thankful for the ongoing recognition and support. 

As the team is now testing on animals, Gerdts told Narcity that the best animal for the job is the ferret. He confirmed animal testing is the most effective route.  

As of now, the ferrets have been given the prototype to be immunized. In the coming weeks, the team will be exposing the ferrets to COVID-19 and if all goes as the team hopes, the ferrets will not develop the disease. 

“Once we have proof that it works in the candidates, we have to think about how we develop and manufacture it,” said Gerdts.

Once the candidate, in this case, the ferrets, prove the vaccine works, the team will need to ensure it is safe for human use. 

They would do this by conducting toxicology and safety studies.

When the manufacturing stage is proven safe, the team would move on to the next phases which would include testing on volunteers — gradually increasing the number of volunteers each time.

These phases would be focusing on demonstrating that the vaccine is safe and has no side effects.

Once the safety is established and confirmed, researchers would then move onto demonstrating that the tests gave the correct immune response and has therefore worked. 

If everything goes perfectly, Gerdts predicts this clinical phase could take anywhere from six to eight months. 

While it would be ideal to wait for the results before manufacturing the vaccine, Gerdts isn’t taking any chances. 

Due to the severity of the situation, Gerdts wanted to start manufacturing the vaccine without knowing the results so as not to waste any more time. 

Gerdts does not see a downside to fast-tracking the manufacturing process. 

“This is what we are all here for. This is what we love to do,” he told us.

“The safety of the vaccine is the most crucial thing that we need to ensure. We need to make sure it safe and in no way make things more complicated or enhanced.”

If the clinical testing confirms that it is safe and effective, Health Canada and the Biologics and Genetic Therapies Directorate (BGTD) is then responsible for registering and approving the vaccine

When asked how long it could take, Gerdts was quite honest and said it could take some time. But he is hopeful that due to the severity of the situation, the process will be sped up. 

“Given the situation, I think it can be fast-tracked as much as possible. No one wants to hold it up right now. But what they need to see is clear evidence that it is safe to use.”

According to the Government of Canada, provinces and territories are responsible for buying the vaccines they need, but the government will ensure they are equitable and affordable. 

Gerdts was quick to clarify that this vaccine is just that — a vaccine. By this, he means that a vaccine is something to prevent a disease and it is given before the disease even happens. 

A therapeutic, on the other hand, is what would be used if someone already had a disease.

Gerdts is hopeful the vaccine will be both preventative and therapeutic. 

“We are hoping we can use it even in the face of an outbreak as well as to improve the situation. But that is something we need to study.”

If the outcome is not what Gerdts is hoping for, then it will only be effective for people who have not already been infected with the COVID-19 virus

Gerdts states that if it is only preventative then people who have already been exposed will have to rely on alternative methods including washing hands and self-quarantining. 

Despite the ongoing pressure, Gerdts is in his element and is happy that VIDO-InterVac is getting some recognition for its continuing efforts. 

“VIDO-InterVac is one of Canada’s leading organizations working on this and we are excited to be a part of it and acknowledge the support.”

There is no certainty that this vaccine will be successful or when it will be available if it is. There are many contingencies and it is important to stay informed about the latest updates, advisories, and best health and safety practices as advised by the World Health Organization

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