Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen at LifeLabs after being logged upon receipt at the company’s lab, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canadian expert says he is confident COVID-19 vaccine is months, not years away

Dr. Gary Kobinger helped develop a vaccine and treatment for the deadly Ebola virus

One of Canada’s preeminent infectious disease experts says he is confident a vaccine for COVID-19 will be ready in months, not years.

Dr. Gary Kobinger, director of the Research Centre on Infectious Diseases at Laval University in Quebec, says there are more than 100 possible vaccines in development for COVID-19 around the world. With so many resources and people working on the problem, things are moving very quickly.

“I think we have a very high likelihood to see a coronavirus vaccine emerge in the next, hopefully months, meaning many, many months, but not 10 years,” Kobinger said Friday, during a virtual conversation with Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.

Kobinger helped develop a vaccine and treatment for the deadly Ebola virus while he worked at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Manitoba, and has decades of experience co-ordinating with global colleagues on vaccine development.

He is now working with labs in Canada, the United States, Chile, China, Europe and Africa on their various candidates for a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes the disease now known around the world as COVID-19.

Many governments and public health experts have warned the physical distancing restrictions and public gathering limitations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may need to remain in place until a vaccine can be developed.

Kobinger said the vaccine, and the parallel work studying drugs that could better treat COVID-19, reducing the length and intensity of the illness in those who get very sick, are both advancing at lightning speed.

“The knowledge keeps building up at an amazing pace, I must say,” he said.

That is not to say there is not a huge amount of work left to do, he added. The chief concern in the development of a vaccine is safety, because he says if even one of the more than 100 candidates turns out to harm people it could put every one of the others in jeopardy as well.

Kobinger said developing a vaccine candidate can take just a few weeks, particularly once the virus itself was mapped out. Then the candidates are tested on animals, usually mice, with safety being the main concern.

When the trials move to humans, they are done in three phases, with the first phase very small and only looking at safety. The second phase uses a slightly larger group of volunteers where safety is still job one, but the effect of the vaccine is part of the mix.

If a vaccine proves to be both safe and effective after phase two, then the researchers recruit tens of thousands of volunteers to receive the vaccine, and its effectiveness is tested. That process often takes decades.

“Now we are trying to really compress 15, 20 years of vaccine development into one single year,” he said.

Kobinger said with this particular virus researchers have two big things in their corner. First, this virus is new but similar to the SARS outbreak in 2003 that killed 43 people in Toronto. That virus was named SARS-CoV, and this one is SARS-CoV-2.

A lot of the work done to try and create a vaccine for the first SARS — which was never completed because the outbreak died out after six months — is proving useful this time.

Kobinger also said unlike HIV or influenza, SARS-CoV-2 is not changing very quickly. That is allowing the vaccine researchers to plan one universal vaccine that could help all people.

Researchers haven’t been able to develop an HIV vaccine in 35 years of trying, said Kobinger, and influenza vaccines are adjusted every year as the virus mutates.

Kobinger said he cannot predict exactly when a vaccine will be ready, but he says his lab is “going at full speed.”

“It will be a critical tool to protect the population, people, in order for them to get back to absolutely normal life as it was before COVID-19,” said Kobinger.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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