McMaster researchers work to develop second-gen COVID-19 vaccines in Hamilton


Published February 16, 2021 at 4:06 pm


Researchers at McMaster University are working to develop made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine candidates at a specialized facility in Hamilton.

Last week, the university announced that a team of infectious disease experts, virologists and immunologists are working on two new second-generation COVID-19 vaccines.

“We are at the forefront of finding viable solutions to the ongoing pandemic,” said McMaster President David Farrar.

“Working on something so pivotal to the health and safety of Canadians is evidence of our ongoing commitment.”

The work is being conducted at the Robert E. Fitzhenry Vector Laboratory at Mac, the first facility of its kind in Canada and one of a few with the capacity to develop and produce viral-vectored vaccines for clinical testing.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), viral-vector vaccines use a modified version of a different virus (the vector) to deliver important instructions to the body’s cells.

“For COVID-19 viral vector vaccines, the vector (not the virus that causes COVID-19, but a different, harmless virus) will enter a cell in our body and then use the cell’s machinery to produce a harmless piece of the virus that causes COVID-19,” the CDC website says.

“This piece is known as a spike protein and it is only found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19.”

The idea is that if the spike protein is detected on a cell, the body’s immune system will have been programmed to recognize that it doesn’t belong there and starts to fight off the infection.

“At the end of the process, our bodies have learned how to protect us against future infection with the virus that causes COVID-19.”

At Mac, researchers are focusing on two vectors, which they are testing individually and together: the first is a human adenovirus, which causes the common cold and the second uses a chimpanzee adenovirus to deliver the DNA of a component of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID.

The vaccines under development at Mac are being designed to be administered in two phases.

The first ‘priming’ dose, would be delivered via injection and then it would be followed by a booster four weeks later which would be delivered via inhaler, which would directly target the common sites for infection: the mucus linings of the lungs and upper airways.

“This is intended to start an immune response that is then called into the lungs, where we need it, so it is already there and ready to go if the vaccinated person comes into contact with COVID-19,” said Brian Lichty, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine who is co-leading the vaccine development with McMaster colleagues Fiona Smaill and Zhou Xing.

“This is a very prudent approach, which will give broader immunity against coronaviruses and provide baseline protection against future pandemics.”

Researchers even plan to administer inhaled boosters to people who have been previously vaccinated with a “first-generation” vaccine (ie: Pfizer or Moderna), or who have previously been infected with a mild COVID infection.

If the vaccines are approved by Health Canada, human trials could likely get underway this Spring in Hamilton with healthy volunteers and second stage trials would likely follow in the Fall.

So far, Canada has administered 1,443,400 COVID-19 vaccines with 25,011 of those administered in Hamilton.

Canada’s vaccine deliveries have slowed in recent weeks as manufacturers struggle to ramp up production to meet the global demand.

Although the Vector lab has limited capacity, researchers are manufacturing tens of thousands of vaccine candidate doses there, with the potential to manufacture hundreds of thousands more.

The research is part of Canada’s Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats, an international network based at Mac, that includes scientists, clinicians, engineers, social scientists and other experts working collaboratively to prevent future pandemics and mitigate global health threats.

Last week, McMaster announced that research was also underway to evaluate the effectiveness of several drug therapies to treat early COVID-19 infections.

The trial will evaluate the effectiveness of ivermectin, metformin, and fluvoxamine in preventing COVID-19 disease progression, and the researchers say the results could be known in as short a time as two to three months.

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