A University of Saskatchewan (USask) research facility is seeking $50 million from the federal and Saskatchewan governments to build Canada’s capacity to respond rapidly to future pandemics, including the addition of the country’s second biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab.
Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) leaders have been pitching their proposal for a national centre for pandemic research to senior officials at Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED), Health Canada, and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). They have since been asked by ISED to submit a formal request as part of the pre-budget consultations.
“These emerging diseases require lightning speed responses. To be quick and nimble you need in-house access to high containment (BSL-4), vaccine manufacturing, and a wide range of animal models,” says Dr. Karen Chad, vice-president of research at USask, which houses VIDO-InterVac.
“If this three-pronged capability had been in place at the start of this pandemic I think we’d be at least six months further ahead and in clinical trials by now,” — on par, she adds, with a leading vaccine contender developed by researchers at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute which has all those capabilities in house. That vaccine is currently in phase 3 clinical trials led by Oxford and AstraZeneca.
To operate an expanded and integrated facility, VIDO-InterVac is also looking to both Ottawa as well as private donors to provide stable operating funding of about $20 million per year. Dr. Volker Gerdts, director and CEO of VIDO-InterVac, says this is “a small investment if you compare that to the potential losses a pandemic can have.”
If successful in its bid, VIDO-InterVac would become one of more than 50 BLS-4 labs either operating or under construction around the world, according to a 2017 World Health Organization report.
Building on strengths in animal and human research
VIDO-InterVac has a long history of working with zoonotic infections—novel diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. It operates one of the world’s largest containment level 3 agriculture facilities designed to support discovery research and pre-clinical trials using large and small animals. It also has a 160-acre containment level 2 research station for large animals used in clinical studies.
“More than 70% of emerging diseases are zoonotic in nature, so this R&D for pandemic preparedness really underscores the importance of animal research—precisely the type of critical research that has distinguished VIDO-InterVac over its 45-year history,” Chad told Research Money.
Earlier this year, VIDO-InterVac was the first lab in Canada to isolate the virus that causes COVID-19 and the first in the country to develop animal models for the disease in ferrets and hamsters. It is engaged with more than 80 Canadian and international companies to conduct contract research worth an estimated $13 million—a significant increase over previous years—using VIDO-InterVac’s animal models to test new vaccines, antivirals and therapeutics for COVID-19.
VIDO-InterVac already works closely with PHAC’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. The NML is Canada’s only BSL-4 lab, meaning it meets the highest safety and security levels required to deal with the world’s most deadly viruses and pathogens, such as Ebola and smallpox.
Gerdts expects further collaboration with NML if their Saskatoon facility is upgraded to BSL-4. He sees NML continuing to focus on disease research and diagnostics as it relates to public health, with VIDO-InterVac specializing in understanding disease and vaccine development.
The $50 million would be used for infrastructure and equipment—specifically, a high-security BSL-4 lab and a new containment level 2 animal facility capable of housing exotic species, such as bats and reptiles, as well as insects and large animals such as pigs and cattle. The new facility may also house non-human primates, the only animals that are similar enough to humans for assessing a new therapeutic’s safety and quality.
The funds would also be used to recruit international scientists and support new research chairs and fellowships to expand the facility’s research capacity and expertise. Having staff on site already trained to work in a high containment environment can save months of ramping-up when a pandemic strikes.
The third piece of the puzzle in responding to a pandemic is the ability to manufacture enough vaccines domestically for clinical trials.
VIDO-InterVac received $12 million from the federal government earlier this year (for a total commitment of almost $16 million) to build a pilot-scale manufacturing plant, scheduled to open September 2021, with the capacity to produce 20 million to 40 million vaccine doses annually for both animal and human trials. It also received a separate $23 million in federal funding to accelerate the development of its vaccine for COVID-19, currently on track to begin human clinical trials at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax by December.
“Canada has a shortage of [vaccine] manufacturing capacity but also has a shortage of research capacity in, for example, working with non-human primates. That’s limited right now to the NML in Winnipeg,” Gerdts told Research Money. “As a country, we need more capacity to be able to quickly respond. If you look at who is doing the key COVID-19 research in non-human primates, it’s the U.S., the UK and maybe Australia, but it’s not Canada.”
“VIDO-InterVac is well-positioned to do this work because of our expertise in working in the interface between human and animal health,” adds Gerdts. “This allows us to work on both emerging diseases that are affecting animals as well as emerging diseases that are affecting humans.”