How a lab in Sask. that focuses on animals became Canada’s $23M hope for a COVID-19 vaccine

In the global race to find a COVID-19 vaccine, the federal government announced Monday it is pumping $23 million into an academic research lab in Saskatchewan. 

The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan started as a modest veterinary lab in 1975. But it has evolved into a world class facility that the Trudeau government is betting can develop a vaccine to stop the pandemic.

The Saskatoon lab already has a head start. It has been working on coronavirus vaccines, primarily for animals, for four decades, including successful vaccines for cattle and pigs.

Today, the vaccine centre is one of only a few high-level containment facilities in the world able to conduct research on a vaccine for COVID-19.

In a wide-ranging interview Friday, VIDO-InterVac research scientist Darryl Falzarano and associate director Paul Hodgson told CBC News that in the past, generating interest in funding research into a pan-coronavirus vaccine for humans has been a challenge.

While the focus is now on stopping COVID-19, Hodgson said finding a pan-coronavirus vaccine is their “vision statement,” much like a universal flu vaccine has been a goal of scientists for decades.

 “That’s something we’ve never been able to get funding for,” said Falzarano.

Falzarano, left, says the lab’s goal has long been to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine. (Bonnie Allen)

But that has all changed, at least for the foreseeable future. Today, there are 160 people working at the lab — and up to 30 per cent of them are working on a coronavirus vaccine.

The Public Health Agency of Canada gave VIDO-InterVac the green light to start researching a vaccine for humans in late January. Researchers isolated the virus from a sample and have since grown the virus in a cell culture and are now testing a vaccine candidate in animals.

One of the questions Hodgson says he gets asked frequently these days is, “Why can’t you do a vaccine faster?”

The answer is complicated.

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