Biotech firm gets US$33M boost for Ottawa-developed COVID-19 vaccine targeting new variants

Vaccine vial

A company that’s just launched clinical trials for a locally developed COVID-19 vaccine is receiving a multimillion-dollar funding boost to work on a new version of the jab that will target more transmissible variants of the coronavirus.

Massachusetts-based VBI Vaccines said Wednesday it’s signed a partnership with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations that will see the European organization provide up to US$33 million to help it develop vaccines against the B.1.351 strain of the virus.

First discovered in South Africa and believed to be more contagious than earlier variants, B.1.351 has quickly spread throughout the world. Scientists at VBI’s main research facility in Ottawa are working on a vaccine to combat the new strain as well as other emerging variants, and the company hopes to begin trials in the next few months.

“Remarkable progress has been made to develop safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19, but in parallel to the global rollout of vaccines we must now redouble our R&D efforts so we have the tools we need to tackle emerging variants of the virus,” CEPI chief executive Dr. Richard Hatchett said in a statement.

The new capital will augment $56 million in funding VBI received last summer from the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund to ramp up development and testing of its initial COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

Ottawa Hospital leads study

VBI, which employs about 35 people in Ottawa, is partnering with the National Research Council to create the vaccine, which is being manufactured by Mississauga-based Resilience Biotechnologies. 

The company started enrolling participants in the first phase of human clinical trials this week. 

VBI says the first phase is expected to include about 60 healthy adults aged 18-54. It will take place in Ottawa and eight other Canadian cities over the next several months.

Ottawa Hospital researchers Dr. Bill Cameron and Dr. Michaeline McGuinty are leading the study, which will monitor side effects and evaluate the body’s immune response to the vaccine to determine if one or two doses of the jab will be required.

One group of participants will receive a single dose of the vaccine and a placebo dose, while another group will get two doses of the vaccine. Their immune responses will then be evaluated and compared over the next three to four months.

While VBI is trailing global pharmaceutical giants such as AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson that have already received regulatory approval for their vaccines and begun rolling them out, local researchers involved in the new study say there’s still plenty of room for other players to enter the arena.

“This is … a virus that's going to be with us for a long time, and we need as many tools in our arsenal as we can get to help combat the pandemic locally and internationally,” said McGuinty, an infectious disease specialist and lecturer at the University of Ottawa. “We need as many options as we can to make sure we can get them to everybody.”

VBI’s vaccine uses a novel approach to train the body’s immune system to attack the invading virus. 

"If we can trick the body into thinking that what we’re injecting is a virus, then we’re likely to get a nice, strong immune response."

Its technology, known as eVLP for “enveloped virus-like particle,” is made of lab-generated material that contains the “spike protein” from the real coronavirus, meaning it looks like the real thing but contains no genetic material and cannot replicate. 

The company says preclinical trials have shown the vaccine generates a noticeable reaction from the immune system after a single dose.

“If we can trick the body into thinking that what we’re injecting is a virus, then we’re likely to get a nice, strong immune response,” McGuinty said. 

Like the AstraZeneca vaccine, VBI’s product does not need to be stored at ultracold temperatures, potentially making it cheaper and easier to distribute. 

The company says the vaccine can be stored, transported and handled at normal refrigerated conditions of around 4 to 8 degrees Celsius and is expected to last for months. 

VBI says it expects to have preliminary results from the first phase by the end of June. Phase two will begin in the second half of 2021 and will likely be expanded to include hundreds of adults in all age groups.

If all goes well, the company says it hopes to attain emergency Health Canada approval for the product in 2022.