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How work has changed for university vaccine researchers

COVID-19 led to new opportunities and challenges.


In 2019, Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry opened a $16 million advanced containment lab to study infectious diseases.

“You’re crazy. You’re wasting time and money,” observers told professor Eric Arts during construction of the 7,000-square foot lab that includes Level 2+ and Level 3 containment facilities.

Months later, the lab was slammed with projects, testing COVID-19 antivirals, vaccines and drugs on behalf of 35 different companies. “There were very few facilities like this in Canada. But we were open for business,” said Dr. Arts, who is Canada Research Chair in HIV pathogenesis and viral control.

Now, Western has earned a further $16 million in federal funding for a facility to study how pathogens spread. Dr. Arts and colleagues are also creating the world’s first vaccine seed bank to store thousands of vaccines that could be ready for use in an outbreak or pandemic.

Over the last three years, university-based vaccine researchers have experienced unprecedented interest and investment. Once underfunded, 2020 brought an influx of funding, including $887 million from the federal government, via the Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy.

“The pandemic reminded the world of the impact infectious disease have on our daily lives,” said Volker Gerdts, director and CEO of the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO). He recalled many years of warning governments and others that a pandemic was coming and that Canada was not prepared. Few believed him.

Anna Blakney, an assistant professor at the Michael Smith Laboratories (an interdisciplinary biotechnology department) at the University of British Columbia, found herself working in a small field back when she began researching RNA-based vaccines in 2016. “Vaccines were much less of a hot topic then. Now, everyone sees the importance and the effect they can have.” Indeed, Health Canada approved vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and Ebola this year.

The COVID pandemic triggered new approaches to development and helped establish effective vaccine platforms — but also led to increasingly complex public pressures.

Making a vaccine today is informed by recent experience. “I’m tired of doing a reactive response. I did two years of 70-hour weeks, completely exhausted. We need to figure things out so we don’t return to that,” said Dr. Arts who recently found more time to focus on his HIV research.

Dr. Gerdts and his team now think differently, too. “We have seen a change in how we make vaccines. They have to be what we call ‘broadly protective’, so addressing multiple strains and, ideally, multiple pathogens. We cannot afford to make vaccines in five, eight, or even 10 years,” he said. A quickly-made shot could contain an outbreak, preventing a pandemic, or at least slow it down so a more targeted vaccine could get developed.

The groups that successfully made COVID vaccines all had in-house manufacturing facilities. VIDO got funding to open one last year, while the National Research Council built a facility in Montreal in 2021. “A facility like ours can help you take great research and run it through the early manufacturing,” said Dr. Gerdts. VIDO will leverage the space to make a pan-coronavirus vaccine and a shot for a bacteria-based disease that affects cows in sub-Saharan Africa.

At McMaster University, a longstanding biomanufacturing facility allowed researchers to develop an inhaled COVID vaccine — it works on multiple variants and limits the spread of the virus. The new vaccine is currently wrapping up Phase 1 trials, and has already secured funding for Phase 2.

Matthew Miller, associate professor in biochemistry and biomedical science — who held the Canada Research Chair in viral pandemics in 2022 — said Canada has better funding and infrastructure to support scaling up a medical invention with industry partners. “Academia is really good at innovating, but we’re really bad at commercializing, because that’s not really our job,” he said. The federal government’s support of new vaccine-making plants, via Sanofi in Ontario and Moderna in Quebec, makes domestic innovation and manufacturing possible. However, this has not been without its challenges: the only made-in-Canada COVID vaccine never got to patients. Its maker, Medicago, shut down in early 2023 as company ties to tobacco doomed the enterprise.

Meanwhile, science is forever changed by the success of COVID mRNA vaccines. “The whole world was on the edge of their seats in 2020. There was no guarantee it was ever going to work,” said Dr. Blakney, who said the early data wasn’t overly compelling. She estimated it would have taken a decade to perfect an mRNA vaccine had there been no pandemic.

Now, the mRNA platform is “no longer a wildcard” she said, and is informing a wide range of medical research. No one has been able to make an mRNA vaccine against a bacteria, but her lab is working on a vaccine for chlamydia. She’s also looking to use mRNA to encode antibodies and create a targeted ovarian cancer treatment.

While the COVID-19 viral vector vaccine created by AstraZeneca proved flawed, with rare but dangerous side effects, Dr. Miller said once that’s understood, vaccine labs could have another valid platform.

Meanwhile, he considered the development of the new RSV vaccine a quiet but impressive success story. “A vaccine was made for RSV decades ago that ended up enhancing disease, so it was a huge setback and slowed the development of subsequent vaccines.” Dr. Miller called solving this a “major innovation in the vaccine space.”

Vaccine researchers now also understand the complexities around public perceptions of their work. “The biggest surprise to us was we had vaccines made in such a record time, and then people wouldn’t use them,” said Dr. Gerdts. In recent years, Dr. Arts has seen people in Uganda go from eager to take new, lifesaving vaccines, to now being hesitant, having read incorrect information on social media.

Dr. Blakney suggests people in the field will have to learn how to hone their science communication skills. “We need to do a better job of keeping people up to date so they can understand and accept these new technologies.”

The trick, these experts know, will be to get important work done before the next health priority comes along. “I think there will be a natural contraction in interest and funding,” said Dr. Blakney. “That’s just the ups and downs of science.”

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