This is , conducting an interview with Dr. Volker Gerdts on March 24, 2020 on the subject of COVID-19 and efforts to develop a vaccine for it.
For your information, Dr. Gerdts is the Director and CEO of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. Dr. Gerdts and his team of scientists are working on cutting-edge technologies to produce new vaccine for ongoing and emerging infectious diseases.
I had solicited questions from my contacts for this purpose. To follow is the transcript of this interview.
Q1. Hello and welcome. Dr. Gerdts can you please introduce yourself to our audience.
At VIDO/InterVac, we are one of few labs in the world currently working on COVID-19. We operate in a special facility called High Containment Lab built for the purpose of working on highly contagious emerging diseases that require Biosafety Level Three standards. When the virus emerged in February (2020), we started to isolate the virus and made an animal model for the coronavirus.
Q2. And how soon you can apply this vaccine to people?
It may take some time, we are currently in the animal testing phase. We have made the vaccine in the lab, have purified it, and have injected it into the animal model (ferret). After we determine that the vaccine works, we will be looking into safety assessment, manufacturing, and finally testing on human subjects. It may take another 12 months before all of this has been completed.
Q3. Can we transfer the antibody of a previously infected person (Covid-19 positive) to treat other patients? Is it possible?
The idea here is that infected patients have antibodies in their blood and by purifying and transferring these antibodies to other individuals, you might be able to protect them from disease. That is not a new concept, rather a really old concept which has been successfully used in the history of mankind and frequently used in veterinary medicine. My personal opinion is that this may not be sufficient for a pandemic, there are much more sophisticated, methods that can be used. For instance, we can make very specific antibodies in large quantities in the lab, rather than using serum. This is what is commonly referred to as monoclonal antibody therapy, which is much more successful than transfusion of extra plasma.
Q4. How long do you think this process of antibody production for therapy would take?
There are various companies around the world already working on developing therapeutic antibodies. These have to be tested in animal models first to see if they work. This work is ongoing and may take about a half a year at least before any of these can go to production.
Q5 What is your prognosis for the growth of this Corona Virus?
This is a hard question and I can’t really answer that.. The big question is whether or not this disease may come back as another phase with more outbreaks in the future. It’s too early to predict what might happen.
Q6. How is the process of growth or containment of this virus? What stage are we in now?
I think it depends where in the world you look, for example in China they passed the plateau already and they went down in their numbers but in other countries such as the US, Canada and Europe they are still on the rising side of the plateau. We are all hoping that within the next few weeks we will reach the plateau, and for the numbers to drop down. This is the result of the excellent work of the Public Health authorities in trying to contain the disease as much as possible and reduce the contact of people with infected individuals. These measures are working and the numbers will be going down at some point; they might go up a little bit first but then you’d see those numbers go down. The numbers start to drop as people reduce the amount of their contact.
Q7. What is the most important element in containment of the Corona Virus?
It depends on how people behave and how effective we all follow the rules. It’s all about reducing the contact, and reducing the chance of the virus spreading. As soon as a person realizes that he or she may be positive, they need to self-isolate and reduce any chance of transmission and reduce any contact and so on. In addition, because of the public health awareness campaign, people are more conscious of what they do, wash hands frequently, work from home remotely, and so on. These are very effective methods and measures to reduce the spread of the disease.
Q8. What are the effective elements in reaching the plateau? Some say once a certain percentage of people for example 65% are infected then the public immunity allows reaching a plateau or do you think it is just a matter of following the protocols of social distancing and personal hygiene?
I’m not sure if I can answer that question. It really depends on what countries we are talking about. There are so many factors that play a role and it depends on the country, or even whether it’s a city or rural areas. For example, we see in Italy a high number of deaths while in other countries of Europe mortality is not as high. I don’t think we know all of these factors as of yet. At this point though, the most effective strategy is to reduce the spread of the disease as much as possible to not overburden our hospitals. In the long term, we will develop immunity in the population (herd immunity) that will slow down the spread. The higher the level of herd immunity the better we are prepared for another wave of the disease. As soon as we have vaccines, we may no longer have this concern and can easily prevent and treat it..
Q9. You said you have made a vaccine and are testing it on animals. How successful has the vaccine been so far on animals?
We made the vaccine in a very short time. It took us less than 8 weeks to generate the vaccine and manufacture and purified it in the lab. It’s going to take another month or so of exposing the animals to the virus to see if they are protected against the disease. Then we will see if everything works well and results are what we were hoping for. We call it proof-of-concept.
Q10. What are the next phases and how long is each phase?
The first step is to demonstrate proof of concept in animals. In the next phase, we will assess the safety of the vaccine. We need to see that the vaccine is absolutely safe before going forward. Then the vaccine needs to be manufactured and after that clinical testing in humans can start. The first clinical trial (Phase-1) assesses the safety of products. Later at Phase-2, we will be looking at whether the vaccine works or not.
Each phase usually takes several months for enrolling the volunteers and observing them
Q11. How is coronavirus compared to the other flu viruses that die down in the warm weather? Is it likely going to die down with the warm weather?
At this moment, we don’t know if we can have the hope that warm weather will have an effect on the virus. Personally, I don’t think so. If warmer weather had an affect on this coronavirus, we would have seen it already. For example, Iran and Italy have warmer temperatures right now and the disease is still spreading.
Q12. What is your opinion of using the already existing medications such as chloro-quine, which has been in use for decades to treat malaria? Is research on this kind of medication or approach part of what you do?
Research needs to be done first to demonstrate that they are effective. We are currently testing a number of different drugs and antivirals.
Thanks for your valuable time.