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To strengthen Canada’s role in responding to infectious diseases, VIDO-InterVac works with international partners to study human and animal pathogens and develop solutions and technologies that protect health.

USask’s VIDO-InterVac approved to work on Wuhan coronavirus

University of Saskatchewan researchers have received permission from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to start working on a vaccine for the coronavirus recently discovered in China, and they hope to have first candidates for testing in an animal model in six to eight weeks.

“We are hoping to have positive results in a few months,” said Dr. Volker Gerdts, director of VIDO-InterVac (Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre). “We are currently discussing next steps with PHAC and how VIDO-InterVac can assist the country in preparing for the disease.”

On Wednesday, PHAC classified the virus discovered in Wuhan, China as a Level 3 pathogen. VIDO-InterVac is certified to safely handle Level 3 pathogens.

“Within hours we were given permission to handle the virus. I have never seen such speed before, and it shows how institutions can and should work together,” Gerdts said.

He said VIDO-InterVac is trying to get the virus from China or the U.S. In case that isn’t possible, the research group has also ordered synthetic gene fragments in order to assemble infectious virus in the lab, he said.

The DNA blueprint or genome sequence for the virus was released last week by Chinese researchers.

“We immediately used that information to launch the vaccine work. We hope to have first candidates of the vaccine ready for testing in an animal model in six to eight weeks,” he said.

There is no specific treatment for the new virus, and no vaccine to prevent it.

The Wuhan coronavirus has killed 17 people. Five Chinese provinces reported additional cases of the Wuhan coronavirus on Wednesday, bringing the total number of people infected in mainland China to 547, according to CNN. The worldwide number of cases reached 555 on Wednesday.

South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the United States have each reported one case of the virus, while Thailand said the number of infected people there has risen to four.

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Dr. Volker Gerdts, director of VIDO-InterVac

“Hopefully this disease will never come to Canada, but if it does, we will be prepared as much as possible in such short time,” Gerdts said. “Our focus at VIDO-InterVac is on emerging diseases, so when we get these disease outbreaks in the world, we can respond quickly. If we had the vaccine manufacturing facility that we’re proposing to build, we could even produce small batches of the vaccine for clinical testing in-house.”

A number of USask researchers are involved in the latest coronavirus work, in particular Drs. Darryl Falzarano and Dr. Qiang Liu. Both are coronavirus experts and currently work on MERS-Coronavirus and (PEDV) Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea. There is no effective vaccine for MERS-CoV which is one of half a dozen coronaviruses that can infect humans. 

VIDO-InterVac is very familiar with the coronavirus family of viruses which includes SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and a virus that causes porcine diarrhea for which VIDO-InterVac developed a vaccine a couple of years ago. VIDO-InterVac has successfully commercialized two coronavirus vaccines for animals (cattle and swine) and is part of the SARS-Coronavirus (SARS-CoV) vaccine initiative.

“All these serious infectious diseases are caused by coronaviruses,” said Gerdts.

As current coronavirus vaccines, when available, offer limited protection against divergent viruses, the longer-term goal of the research group is to develop pan-coronavirus vaccines that could provide protection against multiple strains or cluster of viruses. Using structural biology and protein engineering, they propose to develop vaccines that enhance cross-protection against different coronaviruses.

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