Saskatchewan seeks to build a containment level 4 lab to research pandemics

Vertical integration, where you control all aspects of your operation, is what Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) is aiming for in preparation for the next pandemic, as well as dealing with continuing variants of COVID-19.

If certain things had been in place, the University of Saskatchewan-based organization in Saskatoon could have started human trials for its COVID-19 vaccine six months earlier.

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So Premier Scott Moe announced $15 million on Feb. 23 to assist VIDO in developing a new proposed Centre for Pandemic Research. He called upon the federal government to contribute a further $45 million to accomplish this goal, and broadly hinted that recent contact with the feds indicated that would be forthcoming.

The announcement was made in the Legislature as part of the regular COVID-19 briefing. VIDO’s director and CEO, Dr. Volker Gerdts, joined Moe for the announcement. 

The new Centre for Pandemic Research would include upgrading areas of its existing facilities to a biosafety containment level 4 facility, the highest level. Currently there is only one such facility in Canada, located in Winnipeg at the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health, which includes the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML). The United States has eight such labs, with another under construction. According to the World Health Organization, in 2018 there were more than 50 such labs worldwide. Notably, one of China’s two labs is located in Wuhan, the city where the COVID-19 pandemic originated.

The Government of Canada website with reference to such labs explains “For containment level 4 (CL4), the entire lab is built within extra walls to prevent a potential breach. Imagine it like a box-within-a-box. Scientists work with a dedicated breathing air supply and take chemical showers to decontaminate their suits. There are also layers of negative pressure zones – making sure the air always flows back into the lab when any doors are opened.”

VIDO said in a release it has more than 45 years of expertise researching emerging infectious diseases and developing vaccines. The pandemic research centre will leverage over $225 million in containment infrastructure already in place, including the International Vaccine Centre (InterVac) one of the largest and most advanced containment level 3-agricuture (CL3-Ag) research facilities in the world. VIDO is also constructing a pilot-scale vaccine manufacturing facility in InterVac, the organization said.

Moe said the National Microbiology Lab supports the proposal, and that he and a government minister have been talking to the federal government on this. 

Six months earlier

VIDO’s Gerdts said, “If we had our manufacturing facility up and running … we would have been in clinical trials six months earlier.

“We were one of the fastest in the world to respond to this. We had a vaccine ready within five weeks. We were one of the first in the world, and I can say that in confidence, because we're attending these weekly expert group meetings, organized by the World Health Organization, and so every week, researchers around the world are updating each other on their results in real-time, and so we knew exactly that in the beginning our animal trials was one of the first in the world to test a vaccine.”

Gerdts continued, “What has taken us, then, longer than some of these larger companies is for their manufacturing, we had to go outside and contract others to manufacture the clinical-grade material for us. And so, in the future with having in house, vertically-integrated manufacturing capacity, we can now do this in house. We don't need to go outside. We don't waste time when we produce the vaccine.”

Moe said expediting vaccine research by six months “means an awful lot.”

Gertz had pointed out that VIDO already operates Canada’s largest high containment facility, and with previous investment from the province and federal government, it is currently constructing a good manufacturing practices vaccine manufacturing facility. “Together, those two key elements are critical in rapidly responding to a new emerging disease. And so we already have those two in place. But today’s announcement, and then hopefully the commitment from the federal government, will allow us to now build on that existing infrastructure and leverage those previous investment to upgrade our containment space to the highest level and also allow us to build a new animals facility to be able to work with those animals from which these new diseases emerge. And that includes bats, reptiles, insects, all these exotic species from which we see these pathogens jump into humans, essentially.”

He said VIDO is currently in Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials with its COVID-19 vaccine. They are testing their own vaccine, and other vaccines, against emerging variants. As recently as last week, they’ve adjusted their own vaccine to the new variants to ensure it will be more effective in the future.

Gerdts said, “I think we all need to realize that COVID-19 is not going to go away. We will have COVID-19 around for a long time, and unfortunately, also these variants are around for a long time. So, we need to have manufacturing capacity, both here in Saskatchewan, and elsewhere, to ensure that in the future we have vaccines for these variants.”

Moe added, “This is a very positive step forward, and not only COVID research vaccine production, but pandemic research and vaccine production, and we look forward to working with yourself with the federal government to make it real.”

Moe said, “VIDO is already in the process of expanding its vaccine manufacturing capability. Construction began last October, and construction would be completed by this October. Production of vaccines could then begin sometime in 2022, with the capability to produce up to 40 million vaccines a year.

“To be clear, this is unlikely to have a much of an impact on our current COVID vaccination drive. We expect Saskatchewan residents to be fully vaccinated before the end of 2021. However, we should be ready to produce millions of doses of vaccines, to respond to any new viruses that may present, or variants of the COVID virus that may present in the future, and respond as required.

“Saskatchewan is the leader in Canada in delivering vaccines. We can, we should, and we will be the leader in researching, developing and producing these vaccines. Producing them not just for Saskatchewan residents, but again, producing them for all Canadians.”

Moe spoke of the vaccine shortages Canada has experienced, saying, “I do want to ensure that it never happens again.

“Given the scarce supply of vaccines in our nation is understandable, in the world, quite frankly, it's understandable that a type of vaccine nationalism has emerged; with vaccine-producing nations taking steps to ensure that their citizens have access to those vaccines first. Well Canada should be one of those vaccine-producing nations. And Canada should be a world leader in, not only research, but also the development and production of new vaccines, and that should happen right here in Saskatchewan.”

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