On the Road to a Healthier and Safer Future: NML’s Work on COVID-19 Vaccines

In line with ongoing global efforts to combat the pandemic, scientists at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) are working tirelessly to develop new and improved vaccines for COVID-19 and its variants in the upcoming years.

NML’s vaccine journey

The NML is a world leader in vaccine creation and has a long history of vaccine development. NML scientists developed the world’s first approved Ebola vaccine (Ervebo), which the Government of Canada donated to the World Health Organization (WHO) during the height of the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak to help save countless lives in Africa.

As soon as the pandemic emerged in January 2020, NML scientists shifted focus to combat COVID-19, developing in-house vaccine candidates and conducting necessary research on the most promising candidates to determine their safety and efficacy. Drs. Darwyn Kobasa and Jim Strong are two of the senior research scientists from the NML leading this charge. "Canada, including the NML, are known to have in place some of the safest and most rigorous scientific processes in the world," said Dr. Jim Strong. "And, our continued research will help our fight against COVID-19’s emerging variants."

How is the NML helping with Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine initiatives?

NML scientists are examining vaccine candidates from third-party vaccine developers, and creating their own in-house vaccines, with numerous projects underway and more in the planning stages.

"Once a vaccine candidate is developed or received from a third party, it advances to animal testing. We have unique capacity to conduct pre-clinical research in animal models that must occur in high containment laboratory space, which are both essential to the vaccine development toolkit, including for COVID-19," explains Dr. Kobasa. "Animal models generate invaluable scientific and safety data, which help us identify whether the vaccine is ready for human clinical trials."

Both Dr. Kobasa’s and Dr. Strong’s laboratories are currently evaluating and developing multiple vaccine candidates, including a promising candidate that has started pre-clinical trials in animal model testing. These pre-clinical trials will be followed by a series of challenge tests against new SARS-CoV-2 viral variants across the globe. After the animal model and challenge tests, there are three phases in a human clinical trial, with each succession including more patients and taking more time to complete.

Drs. Darwyn Kobasa and Jim Strong, Senior Research Scientists who are in charge of developing new COVID-19 vaccines at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory

Drs. Darwyn Kobasa and Jim Strong, Senior Research Scientists who are in charge of developing new COVID-19 vaccines at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory

Further down the road

The process of developing a vaccine is very complex, requires significant investments and typically takes many years of testing before it can be considered effective and safe for use. While Health Canada has authorized several vaccines for safety and efficacy, NML scientists and their global peers will continue to conduct research to develop new and improved vaccines for COVID-19 in the upcoming years. This includes studies on the effectiveness of future vaccines for newly emergent variants of SARS-CoV-2. "Not all of these vaccines will make it past the finish line,” explains Dr. Jim Strong. "But, Canadians can trust that our scientists are working hard to contribute to the global efforts to deliver high-standard vaccines that are safe and effective."