Dalhousie research team prepares for clinical trial of COVID-19 vaccine

A Dalhousie University researcher at the forefront of Canada's quest to find a treatment for COVID-19 says human trials for a promising new vaccine could be only weeks away.

Dalhousie's COVID-19 rapid response team is moving forward with testing a vaccine that uses a genome of DNA from SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

"We're beginning to evaluate this in animal models and we can even bring this into people for Phase 1 clinical trials as soon as three weeks from now," virologist Alyson Kelvin told CBC's Information Morning on Wednesday.

"Right now, DNA vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective in people, so we hope that this will help expedite the process of vaccine development."

But Kelvin, an assistant professor in Dalhousie's department of microbiology and immunology, also cautioned that it typically takes a year for vaccines to be developed, tested and distributed to the general public.

Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

"We're working as hard as we can to move this as fast as possible," she said. "We have other vaccines in the pipeline in case this isn't the best vaccine that we can put forth."

There are now 68 cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, which has been under a state of emergency since Sunday.

Unlike a typical flu vaccine that's created using protein from a virus, Kelvin said the vaccine her team is testing uses a piece of the virus's DNA.

"And it uses your own cells to produce protein that will teach your immune system what the virus looks like," she said. 

Kelvin said the DNA vaccine was developed by her colleague, Roy Duncan, and is one of three types of vaccines the team is evaluating right now. 

How long will it take?

Kelvin said SARS CoV-2 is a good candidate for a vaccine because coronaviruses don't mutate as quickly as the influenza virus does. 

The virus has a "proofreading mechanism" that allows it to correct any mistakes that are made to its DNA when it replicates and infects a host, she said. 

"Which means that the virus and its proteins are a bit more stable so we can target it better."

VIDO-InterVac, the Saskatoon-based lab where Kelvin is working as a visiting professor, began researching a vaccine in January, and just received $23 million from the federal government to keep doing that work. 

We'll have this vaccine ready for when the virus comes back. - Alyson Kelvin, assistant professor at Dalhousie University

But even with an influx of funding, and with scientists around the world working feverishly, vaccine development can be a long and complicated process. 

Kelvin said she hopes to get an effective vaccine out to people by the time COVID-19 returns.

"There's a possibility that we could start seeing it causing seasonal infections and disease as we do with influenza virus. If this is the case, we'll have this vaccine ready for when the virus comes back," Kelvin said. 

In the meantime, stay home

As researchers spend long days in the lab, Nova Scotians can help by following the advice public health officials have been saying from the beginning, Kelvin said.

Stay home, and if you must go out, stay away from other people. 

"Social distancing is now the best weapon for fighting this virus," she said. 

Kelvin will be part of an online panel about COVID-19 on Wednesday night hosted by the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Dalhousie University.

The event is being streamed on the MacEachen Institute's Facebook page from 7-8:30 p.m.