Announcement: Funding backs Western COVID-19 vaccine efforts

By Crystal Mackay, MA ‘05
Western efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine received a major jolt thanks to million-dollar investment by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), federal officials announced today.

The team joins the global effort to curb the spread of the virus that, at the time of the announcement, has killed 9,279 people and infected 225,279 worldwide.

Photograph of Eric Arts, PhD“We are in unprecedented modern times,” said Eric Arts, PhD, a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry researcher. “Look back in human history. While a pandemic of this magnitude has happened before, we didn’t have the same public-health infrastructure and research technology that we have now.”

Today, Western researchers received $998,840 towards its efforts to establish and test an effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19. At the same time, the team is also developing a ‘vaccine bank’ that would contain ready-made vaccines to be used rapidly at the start of another coronavirus outbreak.

The team is led by Arts and fellow Schulich Medicine & Dentistry researchers Stephen Barr, PhD, Chil-Yong Kang, PhD, and Ryan Troyer, PhD.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 evolves quickly, and protecting the health of Canadians is our priority,” Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health, said today in making the announcement. “The additional teams of researchers receiving funding today will help Canada quickly generate the evidence we need to contribute to the global understanding of the COVID-19 illness. Their essential work will contribute to the development of effective vaccines, diagnostics, treatments, and public-health responses.”

The announcement was part of a $25.6-million investment by the Government of Canada in 49 additional projects drawn from applications received to its original rapid research funding call two weeks ago.

Western’s efforts are being conducted within a Containment Level 3 lab inside the recently constructed Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT) facility.

Photograph of Stephen Barr, PhD“An effective vaccine will have a tremendous impact on stopping the spread of the virus or alleviating the symptoms of the disease in infected individuals,” Barr explained. “In the face of an outbreak like this one, putting together collaborative teams and working with other labs across the country is critically important for giving Canada the greatest chance to effectively control and manage this pandemic.”

The team is building off of work started by Kang, who has been actively working on a vaccine for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) based on constructs he developed for an HIV vaccine. MERS is caused by a class of coronavirus similar to the one that causes COVID-19.

“MERS-CoV is highly related to this new virus, so it is possible to adapt that vaccine strategy quite rapidly for SARS-CoV-2,” Arts said. “With the technology we have today, we can also introduce all the genetic diversity that exists for these coronaviruses in bats and other species and create thousands of ‘seed’ vaccines.”

Using bioinformatics, the hope is research would be able to identify which strain is circulating early in an outbreak and immediately start vaccine production from the vaccine bank.

“With the emergence of a new virus in the human population, we don’t know what will work to control or treat it,” Barr said. “By sharing the knowledge we get from across Canada, we can rapidly develop a variety of vaccines that can help stop and or slow the outbreak.”

Western’s multidisciplinary team involves experts from Virology, Microbiology, Vaccinology, Bioinformatics and Immunology, and includes researchers Barr, Arts, Kang, Troyer, Greg Dekaban, Jimmy Dikeakos, and Mansour Haeryfar.

With this second round, the total federal investment is now $52 million for 96 projects.

On March 6, projects led by Western researchers Anita Kothari and Maxwell Smith were named as part of the original $26.8-million suite of grants issued by the Government of Canada to fast-track a comprehensive Canadian response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Kothari, cross-appointed between Health Sciences and Schulich, was awarded a grant of $129,600 to develop a social-media toolkit that public health agencies can use during viral outbreaks.

Smith, a Health Studies professor who serves as Co-director of Western’s Health Ethics, Law, & Policy (HELP) Lab, and his team were awarded a grant of $283,656 to propose ethical pathways to expedite research and development of drug treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19.