In­side Canada’s risky race for a vac­cine



“It’s been go­ing on since Fe­bru­ary, so you need to sleep some­time, right? At least, I can’t just go on and on and on. We work some­times 15, 16 hours a day. I’m not go­ing to lie and say that’s every day, be­cause that’s just not sus­tain­able, at least not for me, any­way. Most of the peo­ple are work­ing six, seven days a week. And it’s tir­ing; I’m not gonna lie about that ei­ther. It wears on you af­ter a while, be­cause it’s not just been, like, six weeks of work­ing hard now. It’s been (he ticks off the months un­der his breath — Fe­bru­ary, March, April, May) four months, right?”

Dr. Dar­ryl Falzarano is a vac­cine hunter. Un­til the COVID-19 pan­demic struck, his lab was fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing vac­cines for camels against MERS. To­day, Falzarano is lead­ing a 12-mem­ber team at the Univer­sity of Saskatchew­an’s Vac­cine and In­fec­tious Dis­ease Or­ga­ni­za­tion-in­ter­na­tional Vac­cine Cen­tre (Vido-in­tervac), which re­ceived nearly $1 mil­lion to ex­pe­dite work on a COVID-19 vac­cine, part of a $26.7 mil­lion re­search pack­age from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Re­cently, Falzarano’s lab re­ported that their ex­per­i­men­tal vac­cine in­duced a strong im­mune re­sponse in fer­rets which, like hu­mans and cats, but un­like dogs, pigs, chick­ens and ducks, are highly sus­cep­ti­ble to se­vere acute res­pi­ra­tory syn­drome-coro­n­avirus 2, or SARS-COV-2, the virus rat­tling the planet.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing two doses of the vac­cine, the fer­rets were ex­posed to the virus. “One of the things we looked for af­ter we vac­ci­nated the an­i­mals was, do they have neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­bod­ies — do they have an­ti­bod­ies that block the virus from in­fect­ing cells? And they do,” Falzarano said.

Ideally a vac­cine is go­ing to do two things: stop the virus from repli­cat­ing in the lungs and mak­ing peo­ple se­verely ill, and stop peo­ple from shed­ding the virus and shar­ing it with other peo­ple.

The lab has now moved onto ham­sters. The plan is to move into “first-in-hu­man” stud­ies in the fall, with a hu­man-grade vac­cine.

No one, Falzarano said, has ever de­vel­oped a vac­cine against coro­n­aviruses in hu­mans, which is why there is “no to­tally clear path­way for­ward as to what that re­ally should be.” It also ex­plains why there are 132 other vac­cines in de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing 10 now be­ing in­jected into hu­mans. Dal­housie Univer­sity re­searchers are await­ing re­search ethics board ap­proval to lead the first Cana­dian tri­als in hu­mans of a vac­cine de­vel­oped by Chi­nese man­u­fac­turer Cansino Bi­o­log­ics.

The Univer­sity of Al­berta, Univer­sity of Man­i­toba and Western Univer­sity of Water­loo are among other Cana­dian groups in the fever­ish sprint to a vac­cine.

It nor­mally takes 10 years to de­velop a vac­cine. Every­one is try­ing to do this in about one. Even then, cor­ners aren’t be­ing cut, Falzarano said. Steps are be­ing over­lapped, but safety isn’t be­ing com­pro­mised, he said. The same reg­u­la­tory data is still re­quired; it’s just be­ing done in an ac­cel­er­ated way. “A vac­cine that doesn’t work, maybe that’s not the end of the world. A vac­cine that’s not safe that would be a huge prob­lem. I think every­one is acutely aware of that risk.”

Vac­ci­nat­ing our­selves out of the COVID-19 mess may be our best hope at end­ing lock­downs per­ma­nently and sub­stan­tially re­duc­ing deaths. “A lot of plan­ning around re­turn­ing to a fully open so­ci­ety rests on a lot of peo­ple get­ting this fu­ture vac­cine,” said Maya Gold­en­berg, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Guelph.

But as re­search teams around the world work at break­neck speed to de­liver one, how ac­cept­ing will we be? It de­pends on how much we trust po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and sci­en­tific bod­ies, said Gold­en­berg. “We’ll trust a vac­cine to the ex­tent that we trust the sys­tem that brought us the vac­cine.”

There are al­ready drum­beats of hes­i­tancy. A sur­vey by re­searchers in Car­leton Univer­sity’s School of Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, in part­ner­ship with Aba­cus Data, found that while a strong ma­jor­ity (73 per cent) of 2,000 Cana­di­ans sur­veyed would “def­i­nitely” or “prob­a­bly” ac­cept a COVID-19 vac­cine, 10 per cent said they would def­i­nitely not, or likely not, get vac­ci­nated, and 17 per cent were un­sure.

Anti-vac­ci­na­tion forces are al­ready mar­shalling and “seed­ing out­landish nar­ra­tives,” Na­ture reports, in­clud­ing, that COVID-19 vac­cines will be used to im­plant mi­crochips into peo­ple. In May, a Youtube video claim­ing vac­cines would “kill mil­lions” re­ceived more than eight mil­lion views be­fore it was deleted, Na­ture re­ported.

Gold­en­berg and oth­ers say health lead­ers need to start talk­ing up vac­cines, now. The new­ness of the vac­cine, and a “break the glass” men­tal­ity in push­ing


them out could make peo­ple un­easy, said Dr. Paul Of­fit, pro­fes­sor of pe­di­atrics at Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal of Philadel­phia and co-in­ven­tor of a vac­cine against a ro­tavirus, the most com­mon cause of se­vere di­ar­rhea in ba­bies and chil­dren world­wide. “I think we have the con­fi­dence of par­ents in this coun­try. But you should be skep­ti­cal — I’m go­ing to be skep­ti­cal about these vac­cines when they come out,” Of­fit said this week in a livestream­ed in­ter­view with JAMA ed­i­tor-in-chief Dr. Howard Bauch­ner. “I want to see the data. Every­one should want to see the data.

I think there’s a lot at stake here.”

No amount of data will ever con­vince anti-vac­cine con­spir­acy the­o­rists, Of­fit said. “But I’m talk­ing about the rea­son­able level of skep­ti­cism that any­body should have be­fore putting some­thing in their body.

“We bet­ter make sure that be­fore we in­oc­u­late mil­lions of peo­ple, tens of mil­lions, many of whom are go­ing to be healthy, young peo­ple who are un­likely to die from this virus, that we make sure we hold it to the high­est stan­dard of safety and ef­fi­cacy be­fore we put it out there.”

Gold­en­berg, an ex­pert in vac­cine hes­i­tancy whose re­search, ac­cord­ing to her bio, ex­plores the “fun­da­men­tal epis­temic ques­tion, ‘How do we know what to be­lieve?” said the race for a vac­cine has be­come politi­cized, a “geopo­lit­i­cal fight be­tween China and the USA” to be first. “There’s a global eco­nomic strength tied to be­ing the first to have this vac­cine,” she said.

“This is also go­ing to be a big and dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion for peo­ple to make and every­one needs time to process it and every­one needs re­ally good in­for­ma­tion.”

The pub­lic needs to be up­dated on the tri­als — which ones are go­ing well, which ones aren’t. “We know al­ready that there is a lot of spin,” she said, and sci­ence by opaque press re­lease. An­drew Pol­lard, head of the Ox­ford Vac­cine Group, said in a re­cent press state­ment that their hu­man stud­ies are “pro­gress­ing very well.” Bos­ton-based biotech firm Moderna was ac­cused of over­hyp­ing re­sults when it told CNN its vac­cine pro­duced pro­tec­tive an­ti­bod­ies in a small num­ber of healthy vol­un­teers dur­ing a safety trial. None of the data have been pub­lished in peer-re­viewed jour­nals.

Un­der “Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed,” U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has set a tar­get of hav­ing 300 mil­lion vac­cine doses avail­able by the end of 2020. For sci­en­tists and doc­tors and, ar­guably, the pub­lic, the idea of push­ing any vac­cine out into the pop­u­la­tion with “warp speed’ doesn’t in­spire com­fort, Dr. Brit Tro­gen, of NYU Lan­gone and col­leagues write in a new pa­per pub­lished by JAMA. In 1976, a U.S. cam­paign to vac­ci­nate “every man, woman and child” against a feared swine flu pan­demic that never came failed mis­er­ably, they wrote.

One man­u­fac­turer pro­duced the wrong strain. The shots were blamed for a blip in Guil­lain-barré syn­drome, a rare neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der. Chil­dren de­vel­oped high fevers, “or did not mount an im­mune re­sponse at all.” The fi­asco dam­aged pub­lic trust and helped buoy the anti-vac­cine move­ment.

“Good sci­ence re­quires rigour, dis­ci­pline and de­lib­er­ate cau­tion,” the NYU au­thors wrote, and there will be only one shot at win­ning pub­lic ac­cep­tance of a COVID-19 vac­cine.

Falzarano, at U of Saskatchew­an, thinks the oneyear mark is bullish, but pos­si­ble. How­ever, “I don’t think you have a 100 mil­lion doses by then, and even if you had 100 mil­lion, that’s noth­ing.” De­cid­ing who gets vac­ci­nated first will be com­pli­cated, he said: “The coun­try that has the most cases? Your coun­try, re­gard­less of how many cases you have?” Front­line work­ers first? The most sus­cep­ti­ble? The lot­tery scene in the movie Con­ta­gion?

“I think that part be­comes prob­lem­atic,” Falzarano said.


Sci­en­tists have been work­ing long hours in the Univer­sity of Saskatchew­an’s Vac­cine and In­fec­tious Dis­ease Or­ga­ni­za­tion-in­ter­na­tional Vac­cine Cen­tre as part of an in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to find a vac­cine for COVID-19, which would be a big step in get­ting so­ci­ety back to nor­mal.


Dar­ryl Falzarano, re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Saskatchew­an’s Vido-in­tervac, says a vac­cine might be pos­si­ble in a year, but not the needed num­ber of doses.

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