Ottawa biotech lab gets $56M shot in the arm for COVID vaccine research

COVID vaccine
Photo by Bill Oxford/iStock

An Ottawa company is hoping a multimillion-dollar funding injection from the federal government will be just the boost it needs to develop a homegrown vaccine against COVID-19 and other deadly coronaviruses.

Variation Biotechnologies, a subsidiary of Massachusetts-based VBI Vaccines, has been awarded up to $56 million from the federal Strategic Innovation Fund to ramp up development and testing of its experimental vaccine.

The company, which employs more than 30 people at its R&D facility on Hunt Club Road, is working with the National Research Council to create a vaccine that would target the novel coronavirus as well as a pair of other coronaviruses that have emerged in the past two decades, SARS and MERS.

VBI Vaccines chief executive Jeff Baxter said the new funding will accelerate research into the vaccine, which could be ready for clinical trials in humans by the end of 2020.

“This really does give Canada an opportunity to have a locally invented vaccine,” he said, adding that if the vaccine is effective, it could give the country a stable domestic supply of doses for Canadians.

“This investment with VBI is part of Canada’s plan to mobilize science to fight COVID-19,” Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and industry, said in a statement. “An effective vaccine will be critical as we work to contain the COVID-19 virus and prevent future infections, and we recognize VBI’s potential to be part of the solution.” 

VBI chief medical officer Dr. Francisco Diaz-Mitoma, a former virology professor at the University of Ottawa who founded the company in 2001, told OBJ earlier this year the company’s vaccine consists of particles that closely resemble the “spike protein” structure of real coronaviruses. The vaccine is designed to trigger a response from the body’s immune system that’s “very similar” to a natural infection, Diaz-Mitoma explained. 

Several pharmaceutical giants, including GlaxoSmithKline, Novavax and Sonofi, have received billions of dollars in U.S. government funding to develop similar protein-based vaccines to combat COVID-19. 

Pre-clinical trials under way

But Baxter said VBI’s vaccines could be more effective because they are “much closer to what the natural virus particle looks like” than competing products and therefore trigger a stronger response from the immune system. 

He also said VBI’s technology would require a smaller dosage and be cheaper to produce than vaccines such as the one currently being tested by U.S. biotech firm Moderna that uses genetic material from the virus.

The company has been conducting pre-clinical trials on mice at its own facility and at the NRC’s labs. Baxter said VBI expects to start selecting human test candidates in the next couple of months with the aim of launching clinical trials by the end of the year. 

If the vaccine is proven effective, he said he believes it could be approved for widespread use by the beginning of 2022.

In the meantime, the company expects the new funding could lead to more jobs at its R&D facility as well as at the NRC and its manufacturing partner in Toronto.

“There’s a lot of vaccine expertise in Ottawa,” said Baxter, pointing to the NRC and the University of Ottawa’s world-class immunology department. “It gives us a great talent pool.”