Dr. Volker Gerdts estimates that there are currently over 200 ferrets at his vaccine research center in Saskatoon, including a shipment of more than 100 recent arrivals. Not to mention dozens of hamsters.
“There are a lot of people,” says Dr. Gerdts about the laboratory, one of the largest research centers in Canada. “But that’s why we are built. “
Because ferrets’ respiratory systems are similar to humans, they are now at the forefront of research in Canada for a coronavirus vaccine. And the University of Saskatchewan’s VIDO-InterVac facility is at the center of a global effort to find a solution to the pandemic.
Dr. Gerdts’s team is one of more than 50 international groups working with the World Health Organization, comparing notes and dividing tasks to see which approach will work best for a successful vaccine.
Once a week, he and others join a conference call at 5 am to share data with researchers around the world. It is one of the most important coordinated efforts the vaccine world has ever seen.
Although researchers are running flat, it is also a frustrating and slow process. Even at an accelerated rate, vaccines take a year or more to develop and mass produce. Most estimates suggest that it will take 12 to 18 months for a COVID-19 vaccine to be safe for humans.
In an effort to speed things up, however, labs have started to get creative.
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In the case of Dr. Gerdts’ team, that means multitasking – this is where hamsters come in.
After infecting a group of ferrets with the virus, the laboratory created an animal model of a potential vaccine, which it has since administered to a second group of healthy ferrets.
Healthy ferrets will soon receive a booster vaccine and, a few weeks later, will be exposed to the virus. In May, researchers will find out if the vaccine passes its first major test – if inoculated ferrets are protected from COVID-19.
To speed up the process, the lab started the same hamster research this week, hoping to get a head start on the evidence that the vaccine works in a second animal, before fully knowing if it is effective on ferrets.
Because vaccines must be proven safe in animals before human trials can be attempted, this is a painstaking process.
“Some suggest that hamsters can also be a good model for this disease. This will allow us to improve our capabilities and do more work, “said Dr. Gerdts.
Determining whether ferrets have contracted COVID-19 is not straightforward. Unlike humans, ferrets do not exhibit the outward symptoms of the coronavirus that humans might – like a dry cough. Researchers should therefore examine the lungs of post-mortem ferrets for revealing lesions that inflict on people when the disease invades the respiratory system.
“If the vaccine offers protection, it’s a reduction in viral shedding, which is really what happens between humans when we pass the virus on,” said Dr. Gerdts. “So the less we can transmit, the better. This is what we want a vaccine to do. “
With a massive scientific effort underway, animals such as ferrets and monkeys bred specifically for laboratory research have been in high demand, which has raised concerns among researchers about their upcoming shortage. China – one of the world’s largest suppliers of research monkeys – restricted animal exports during the pandemic, leaving some international laboratories to struggle to find suppliers. However, Dr. Volker said that these problems did not affect the Canadian laboratory.
VIDO-InterVac, which stands for Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Center, is one of Canada’s largest pandemic preparedness facilities. The laboratory received an injection of $ 12 million from Ottawa last month to purchase research equipment and expand its production capacity.
Ultimately, VIDO-InterVac will house a manufacturing facility that could manufacture up to 20 million doses of a new vaccine during a pandemic, said Dr. Gerdts. But it will take at least a year or more before construction is complete, which means that even if the COVID-19 vaccine is discovered in Canada, most doses in the country still have to be purchased under contracts that the government negotiates with international suppliers.
“If we can really speed up regulatory approval for this, we may be able to start producing our own vaccine here at this facility,” he said. “But we don’t know for sure. Everything is unknown at the moment. ”
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