The University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) in Saskatoon is one of the largest “containment Level 3” facilities in the world. Equipped with 18 animal isolation rooms and six large laboratories for testing vaccines, antivirals and therapeutics, the organization has become highly sought-after by academic researchers and pharmaceutical companies working on the COVID-19 virus.
“We have over 100 proposals from different academics, companies and governments around the world,” Paul Hodgson, associate director for business development at VIDO-InterVac, told Research Money. “Realistically, I get five to ten a day. We’re trying to triage them and support as many as we can.”
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has also already awarded 99 grants for COVID-19 research. “If any of those grants require testing in animals, we’re one of the few places in Canada where you can come and test that, so I’m expecting we’re going to get a lot more,” Hodgson says.
Originally created as a veterinary infectious disease organization, VIDO-InterVac now does about a 50/50 split between animal and human disease research. To support the research response to the current coronavirus outbreak, all the laboratories and many staff have been redeployed for research on COVID-19.
Apart from supporting research and development by academics and companies internationally, VIDO-Intervac is running its own internal research projects, mostly around vaccine and animal model development. Dr. Darryl Falzarano, a medical microbiologist and professor at USask, received $1 million from CIHR to lead a project for VIDO-InterVac to identify what common lab and agricultural animals may be infected with SARS-CoV-2. VIDO-InterVac is equipped to run models on species ranging in size from mice to bison.
“We’re using our expertise and experience in SARS and MERS, which are two other human coronavirus pathogens,” says Hodgson. “The ferrets were a model that was used in SARS and that’s why we quickly worked on that.” They’re also establishing a hamster model and looking at cat and non-human primate models.
In total, the research organization has received $23.3 million from the federal government to support the response to COVID-19, of which $12 million will be used to develop a vaccine manufacturing facility, and $11.3 — by way of the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Major Science Initiatives program — to operate its high containment laboratories in support of COVID-19 research. The government of Saskatchewan has also committed $3.6 million to boost vaccine research at VIDO-InterVac.
VIDO-InterVac announced on March 27th that it is partnering with the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) of South Korea on a $180,000 project to study virus replication, immune responses, and the effect of antivirals and other medicines on COVID-19.