Western University researchers begin work on COVID-19 vaccine

A multidisciplinary team of Western University researchers is beginning work on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. They join the global effort to curb the spread of the virus which to-date has been confirmed in 225,000 cases worldwide, and has caused more than 9,000 deaths.

The team is rapidly mobilizing its efforts to establish and test an effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. At the same time they also are working to develop a ‘vaccine bank’ which would contain many ready-made vaccines to be used rapidly at the start of another coronavirus outbreak of a different strain.

The work will be done in Western’s recently constructed Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT) facility which contains Canada’s newest Containment Level 3 facility and a suite of state-of-the-art imaging equipment. This will allow the researchers to safely study the virus in exquisite detail.

“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,” said Stephen Barr, PhD, Associate Professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “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 Chil-Yong Kang, PhD, Professor Emeritus at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry 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 virus 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,” said Eric Arts, Professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “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 they would then be able to identify which strain is circulating early in an outbreak, and immediately start vaccine production from the vaccine bank.

Led by Schulich Medicine & Dentistry Professors Stephen Barr, PhD, Eric Arts, PhD, Chil-Yong Kang, PhD and Ryan Troyer, PhD, the work is possible thanks to new funding announced today from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This funding was rapidly made available to fast-track a comprehensive Canadian response to the pandemic. The team at Western received $998,840 for the project.

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

It is one of 96 projects funded across the country.

“We are in unprecedented modern times,” said Arts. “We can look back in human history, and 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.”

The multidisciplinary team involves experts from virology, microbiology, vaccinology, bioinformatics and immunology including Barr, Arts, Kang, Troyer, Greg Dekaban, PhD, Jimmy Dikeakos, PhD, and Mansour Haeryfar, PhD.

Western University delivers an academic experience second to none. Since 1878, The Western Experience has combined academic excellence with life-long opportunities for intellectual, social and cultural growth in order to better serve our communities. Our research excellence expands knowledge and drives discovery with real-world application. Western attracts individuals with a broad worldview, seeking to study, influence and lead in the international community.

The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University is one of Canada’s preeminent medical and dental schools. Established in 1881, it was one of the founding schools of Western University and is known for being the birthplace of family medicine in Canada. For more than 130 years, the School has demonstrated a commitment to academic excellence and a passion for scientific discovery.