Trina Raccine walks from room to room, making sure we understand that these are sterile spaces with different kinds of pressure and air locks.
“We are trying to protect what we are making from ourselves,” said Raccine, the associate director of vaccine development at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan.
“We don’t want to contaminate what we are making. But our larger Inter-Vac building, our containment level three facility, it’s the opposite — normally we are trying to protect ourselves from what we are working with,” Raccine said.
On Monday, CBC Saskatchewan was given advance access to Saskatoon’s newly completed vaccine development facility.
During the tour, Raccine explained each room and piece of machinery with what seemed like a massive smile on her face. It’s difficult to say for sure as masks are required inside the facility.
The $28 million vaccine development centre lives inside VIDO’s Level 3 containment facility. That distinction makes the facility the first of its kind in Canada. It is the country’s largest containment facility and one of only a few in the world. It was paid for through a combined effort by the City of Saskatoon, the government of Saskatchewan and the federal government.
“It’s really exciting and rewarding to see that finally this has now become reality and that soon we will be able to manufacture vaccines here at VIDO,” said director and CEO Volker Gerdts.
VIDO’s facility is unique because it can make both human and animal vaccines for potentially dangerous viruses, categorized up to Level 3. Eventually, VIDO would like to acquire Level 4 status and work with the most dangerous of pathogens.
Right now, the project is on a pilot scale — this allows for a quick transition from discovery research to clinical trials. And because it’s all in the same place, everything happens under one roof.
The facility can also create any kind of vaccine, Gertds said, whether that is protein subunit, RNA, viral vectors, live or inactive vaccines.
However, commercial production is only approved for animal vaccines. For human intended vaccines, the approval stops at clinical trials — unless there is an emergency.
“VIDO is not going to be a commercial vaccine manufacturer,” he said. “We are a research organization and we really are focusing on manufacturing vaccines that were discovered in lab either here at VIDO or at the university or at other universities or small biotech companies who don’t have the resources to build their own manufacturing facility.”
The facility’s goal is to have between a 90 or 100 day turnaround time for vaccines. The maximum capacity for production will depend on each vaccine’s technology.
However, Gerdts said the facility could produce 40 million doses of its own COVID-19 vaccine every year, which is currently in phase two of clinical trials.
Right now, the facility is nowhere near ready for that. There is a long on-boarding (commissioning) process to make sure everything works the way it needs to. VIDO hope to have it fully functional by the fourth quarter of 2023.
A researcher’s dream
For 20 years, working in the field of viruses and immunology was a way for VIDO virologist Alyson Kelvin to help people. Having this expanded facility is the cherry on top, she said.
“To have something where we can make a difference — and without vaccine manufacturing capacity in Canada — having that here in my own institution, is probably the most exciting point of my career,” Kelvin said.
Kelvin is a member of the World Health Organization’s committee on the SARS-CoV2 vaccine design. She has been involved in emerging virus research since 2003 when she participated in the response to the SARS-CoV epidemic in Toronto.
She is not the only scientist on the grounds of VIDO that is excited about the facility’s potential.
Arinjay Banerjee was born in Calcutta, India but now lives and works in Saskatoon both as a lecturer and research scientist. He finished his doctoral research at the University of Saskatchewan in 2018, specifically looking at bat-borne zoonotic viruses.
“There are coronaviruses in wildlife reservoirs, especially in bats, that could make the jump into humans. We’ve known this for over a decade before COVID-19. What we now know is that viruses are extremely unpredictable and humans and scientists are extremely unprepared in dealing with these viruses. Hopefully … we can change that,” he said.
Banerjee worked in Toronto during the pandemic. He says it was a combination of his history at the U of S and the opportunities possible with high containment pathogens at VIDO that brought him back to Saskatoon.
“I think this is the best place, certainly in Canada, and definitely one of the top on the planet to [study] emerging pathogens,” he said.
Gerdts said that is what is helping recruitment and drawing scientists and the brightest minds in the world to the facility. Eight more scientists have been hired to work there over the last 15 months, he said.
Pandemic reveals gaps
According to Gerdts, the pandemic highlighted real gaps and shortages in Canada’s vaccine research and manufacturing capacity.
“To hire new staff, it often took six months,” he said. “It’s challenging to find people who can work in these very unique conditions where you wear PPE. You can’t go to the bathroom, you can’t drink or anything. It’s not an easy job.”
Gerdts said Canada needs to invest in training the next generation so that when another pandemic comes along we are better prepared.
The federal government is making an effort in that regard. Last year, it announced a biomanufacturing and life sciences strategy, which included $2.2 billion in funding for projects across the country. The goal is to ensure readiness for future pandemics and other health threats.