Coronavirus: Canadian company announces COVID-19 vaccine candidate

A Canadian company says it has made a breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, claiming to have developed a COVID-19 vaccine candidate that could begin human testing as early as this summer.

Quebec City-based Medicago said it has produced a virus-like particle of the novel coronavirus, a first step towards producing a vaccine, which will now undergo pre-clinical testing for safety and efficacy.

Medicago said it could begin human trials as soon as July or August if approved by Health Canada and other agencies.

Company CEO Bruce Clark told Global News that if the vaccine is successful it could be available to the wider public by November 2021. Other media reports erroneously said the vaccine could be ready by November of this year.

“These timelines are heavily reliant on what will give the regulators enough comfort to say this product is ready to go into human testing and then, secondly, for use in the broader public,” he said. “Our best guess right now is 18 months.”

Clark said Medicago researchers were able to produce a candidate vaccine within just 20 days of obtaining the gene of the virus.

If they are given the green light, they could produce as many as 10 million doses a month out of their plant in North Carolina, according to Clark. The company currently has the resources to create about two million doses a month out of its plant in Quebec.

The biopharmaceutical company said it was able to create a vaccine candidate quickly as it used a plant-based platform, not chicken embryos, to help grow vaccine proteins.

Dawn Bowdish, Canada Research Chair in aging and immunity at McMaster University, said the company’s ability to grow virus-like particles in plants has helped it produce vaccines in the past against influenza, including a vaccine candidate against H1N1 in 2009.

“A virus-like particle looks like the outside of a virus but doesn’t have any of the genetic material on the inside,” said Bowdish, who also sits on the scientific advisory board of Medicago. “It doesn’t cause infection but looks really similar from your immune system’s perspective.”

Medical researchers around the world have been racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which has sickened more than 127,000 people and killed roughly 5,000. As of Friday morning, there were 159 confirmed cases in Canada, including the prime minister’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau.

Medicago said it’s also working to develop antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, in collaboration with the Laval University’s Infectious Disease Research Centre headed by Dr. Gary Kobinger, who helped develop a vaccine and treatment for Ebola. The research is being partly funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

“The hope is that we’ll be able to create antibodies that as soon as the virus gets into us, it covers it so it can no longer infect cells,” Bowdish said.

Although this was “good news,” Bowdish cautioned that most vaccine trials fail and in 17 years there was never a vaccine fully developed for the SARS outbreak.

“It’s unlikely there will be a miracle drug,” she said. “But Canada has had some incredible successes creating vaccines very quickly. We had huge success with the Ebola virus.”

Other vaccine candidates to be tested

Globally, there are roughly 20 coronavirus vaccine candidates being developed by research institutes and drugmakers, including America’s Johnson & Johnson and France’s Sanofi SA, according to Reuters.

In China, dozens of clinical trials are underway, according to the World Health Organization, as medical researchers work to evaluate everything from HIV drugs to stem cells and even traditional medicines to treat COVID-19.

Two pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. are getting close to human testing.

Biotechnology company Moderna Inc. — working with the U.S.-funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) — has announced plans to start a trial of a vaccine candidate on 45 people in Seattle this month. Testing on animals will proceed simultaneously with human trials, the NIH told Reuters.

Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc., an immunotherapy company, is working with a company in China to develop a vaccine and expects to start human clinical trials in 30 U.S. volunteers in April.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee on Thursday that human trials for a vaccine would be possible “within a few weeks.”

“We said … it would take two to three months to have it in the first human,” Fauci said. “I think we’re going to do better than that. I hope within a few weeks we may be able to make an announcement to you all that we’ve given the first shot to the first person.”

However, he tempered expectations, stating a vaccine would not be widely available for another 12 to 18 months. The World Health Organization has also made similar projections.

“I want to make sure people understand, and I’ve said that over and over again, that does not mean we have a vaccine that we can use,” he said. “We mean it’s record time to get it tested. It’s going to take a year to a year and a half to really know if it works.”

The WHO has said that there’s currently no vaccine and no specific antiviral medicine to prevent or treat COVID-19, but that possible vaccines and some specific drug treatments are currently under investigation.

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