VIDO-InterVac tackles infectious diseases in world-class facilities

Apr 1, 2016

Originally published in BIOTECanada insights Magazine: Issue 2, 2016

IN 2013, CANADA'S CHIEF PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICER REFERRED TO INFECTIOUS DISEASES AS "THE NEVER ENDING THREAT." This means that the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization­International Vaccine Centre-has never been more relevant than it is today. With its recently certified Level 3 containment facility, VIDO-InterVac is well-positioned to increase its contributions to a growing global health issue.

Indeed, despite significant international efforts infectious diseases remain a primary cause of morbidity and mortality in humans and animals. New and old infectious diseases such as Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Zika continue to emerge and spread, creating significant socioeconomic impacts. 

Additionally, vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and pertussis are once again a risk to our health, and cases of antibiotic-resistant bacteria-including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), tuberculosis, and gonorrhea are increasing. Several factors contribute to this heightened threat, including urban development, habitat fragmentation, and increased international travel. As examples, there are approximately 700.000 people travelling on planes at any given moment. Locally, Canada's three busiest airports anticipate transporting up to 100 million people annually by 2020.

The best medical intervention to prevent the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases is vaccination. Vaccination has eradicated of some of the world's most feared diseases, has significantly reduced disease incidence, and protects our most vulnerable populations. In addition to common diseases. vaccine development continues for some of the world's deadliest infectious agents. The development of vaccines for the majority of these diseases requires special infrastructure, referred to as containment. Containment facilities ensure that scientific personnel and the public remain safe, as scientists advance the understanding of how pathogens cause disease and by developing vaccines and other anti-infective agents.

VIDO-lnterVac was established at the University of Saskatchewan in 1975 as the Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization. It now has some of the most advanced containment infrastructure available, and world-class expertise developing leading-edge vaccines using alternate large animal models of disease. For over 40 years, scientists have taken advantage of VIDO-InterVac to make significant advances in vaccines and related products to fight infectious diseases, particularly those at the human-animal interface (referred to as "zoonotic"). This is increasingly important, as over 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic-the 13 most important zoonotic diseases are responsible for approximately 2.2 million human deaths annually, and an additional 2.4 billion illnesses. The majority of zoonotic diseases require containment Level 3 (also referred to as biosafety level) facilities such as those at VIDO-lnterVac.

Containment Level 3 facilities capable of housing large animals are rare, and VIDO-InterVacs recently certified facility meets a critical need. The facility has provided national and international scientists with access to over $150 million of state-of-the-art infrastructure that wasn't previously available to them. As one of the largest, most advanced Level 3 facilities in the world, it also serves as a training arena for the next generation of scientists.

Scientists at VIDO-lnterVac have made significant progress on diseases they could not previously investigate directly. For example, the CL3 facility was used to develop a vaccine to protect piglets against porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV). a disease which cost North American swine producers over $400 million in direct costs. Research on PEDV required Level 3 containment when the virus first entered Canada in 2014. This vaccine is currently in commercial development with an industry partner and is being tested in outbreak situations in Canada. VIDO-InterVac scientists have. also established an alternate animal model using camelids to help determine viral pathogeniclty and aid in vaccine development for MERS-CoV. 

This work builds on VIDO-InterVacs previous expertise in developing coronavirus vaccines for other animal species, including the world's first coronavirus vaccine for cattle. In addition, VIDO-InterVac is endeavoring to establish Zika virus infection model in swine to help understand viral pathogenesis. The suspected causal relationship between Zika virus infection during pregnancy and severe birth defects such as microcephaly has caused the World Health Organization to consider the current outbreak a pubic health emergency of international concern. Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against Zika virus infection.

The control of infectious diseases remains a global priority. For Canada to remain a leader and meet the needs of the changing infectious disease landscape, it is imperative that policy makers and the general public recognize the threat of infectious disease. and support the fundamental value of vaccination. Similarly, developing vaccines needs to remain a public health priority. With a 40-year history in veterinary and human medicine. VIDO-InterVac can help catalyze an integrated strategy to fight diseases at the human and animal health interface. Innovative research and development efforts-including the ones at VIDO-InterVac using alternate animal models-are fundamental to understanding pathogens and for developing new treatments. In addition, these animal models provide a fundamental resource for policy makers and regulators to collect the information they need to make informed scientific decisions.

For the commercial sector, vaccine efficacy studies using large animal models help mitigate risk in vaccine development. This will greatly assist in the production of new vaccines and other anti-infective medicines that play a key role in protecting animal and human health, a concept of fundamental value in an era of growing antibiotic resistance and emerging viral infections.