Ottawa research lab partners with NRC to develop COVID vaccine

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Dr. Francisco Diaz-Mitoma is the founder of VBI Vaccines. Photo provided

An Ottawa-born pharmaceutical company is teaming up with the National Research Council in a bid to develop a vaccine that will target COVID-19 as well as two other deadly coronaviruses.

Massachusetts-based VBI Vaccines said Tuesday it is working with the federal research organization to create a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that has spread across the world. In addition to providing protection against COVID-19, the proposed vaccine would also target a pair of other coronaviruses that have emerged in the past two decades, SARS and MERS.

Company officials told OBJ Tuesday afternoon they plan to start testing a prototype of the vaccine on mice shortly and hope to launch the first trials in humans within the next six to eight months.

VBI chief medical officer Dr. Francisco Diaz-Mitoma, a former virology professor at the University of Ottawa who founded the company in 2001, says the company’s vaccine consists of particles that closely resemble the “spike protein” structure of real coronaviruses. VBI is using a similar process to create vaccines for other diseases, including an infection called congenital cytomegalovirus that often afflicts fetuses in the womb and newborns.

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. 

Researchers at the company’s R&D facility on Hunt Club Road, which employs about 35 people, will work with scientists at the NRC to create the particles and test the new coronavirus vaccine in pre-clinical trials. The two organizations have collaborated in the past, including on a pre-clinical program to develop a vaccine for the Zika virus.

“We know each other very well,” said Diaz-Mitoma. “We have a pretty solid plan.”

Company officials wouldn’t speculate on how soon a coronavirus vaccine could be ready to go to market, saying only they’ve spoken with Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about fast-tracking the initial clinical trial process. They also declined to give a price tag for the project.

Chief financial officer Chris McNulty said the company, which is publicly traded on the NASDAQ, is “evaluating different funding options” for financing the new vaccine research program. 

“Government funding, whether it be from Canada, from the United States, from China or other affected countries, is something that we’re very interested in,” he said.

Now headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the 130-person company was originally known as Variation Biotechnologies before merging with Paulson Capital Corp. in 2014. 

In addition to its offices in the U.S. and Ottawa, it also operates a manufacturing facility in Israel. VBI also makes a hepatitis B vaccine called Sci-B-Vac that is sold in Israel but is still awaiting final regulatory approval in Canada, the United States and Europe.