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Dr. Volker Gerdts (DVM, PhD), director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at USask. (Photo: David Stobbe)

Education key to vaccine acceleration

As someone who has dedicated his professional life to fighting life-threatening diseases, Dr. Volker Gerdts (DVM, PhD) knows the biggest impediment to getting back to normal are those who are hesitant or refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

With new coronavirus variants threatening to spark a third wave, the director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) said it is imperative that the majority of the population is vaccinated as quickly as possible, as vaccine availability ramps up around the province and across the country.

“If we want to get this disease under control, we need to get as many people as possible vaccinated to create herd immunity,” said Gerdts, noting that researchers believe that achieving herd immunity will require more than 70 per cent of the population to have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19. “The ones who really benefit from that are those who are most vulnerable to the disease, particularly older people. But as data now suggests, it also includes some younger children, and the immune-compromised. So the short answer is, the more people we can vaccinate, the better.”

The irony is not lost on Gerdts that the vaccine-hesitant and anti-vaxxer/anti-masker segments of society may be their own worst enemies in their desire to end pandemic public safety measures.

“To be honest, I think (the anti-vaxxers) have lost a lot of their credibility,” said Gerdts. “To me, the frustrating part is not the anti-vaxxers, it’s the anti-COVID people who ignore that this is happening and say this is all fake news. They choose not to wear a mask and not to get vaccinated and simply ignore the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic.”

“But I think the bigger issue out there is vaccine hesitancy,” he added. “The important message is that these vaccines are being approved in Canada exactly as all other vaccines have been before. They have to go past the same regulatory hurdles, they have to demonstrate safety in animals and in humans. It’s important that people understand that we are not cutting corners or taking any shortcuts.”

From eradicating smallpox and polio to managing measles, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that vaccine development is crucial in dealing with deadly diseases. As the WHO prepares for World Immunization Week (April 24-30), the message appears to have hit home with provincial residents surveyed by the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU) at USask. In a recent SPHERU Social Contours and COVID-19 study, 80.3 per cent of respondents indicated that they would take the vaccine. 

“The clinical studies have confirmed that all of the approved vaccines are safe,” said Gerdts. “While it is understandable that some people may be slightly concerned about potential side-effects, we should not forget that getting the disease can cause serious long-term damage or death, so you don’t want to take that chance. The recommendation is that when it is your turn, take the vaccine.”

Gerdts also noted the rise in new COVID-19 variants of concern is adding to the urgency to get vaccinated, and for the approved vaccines to continue to be tested for their effectiveness in fighting the new variants.

“It is very important to ensure the vaccine protects against these variants, too,” he said. “So here at VIDO, for example, we are in the process of updating our vaccine and adapting it to the new variants, changing our vaccine slightly so that it will match those variants.

“We now have four of the new variants at VIDO, two South African and two U.K. variants, and we are now in animal models to demonstrate that our vaccine works against these new variants. We will then take blood samples from humans involved in our studies and verify that they have neutralizing antibodies, to confirm that they neutralize — or protect — against these variants.”

VIDO’s own COVID-19 vaccine, developed at USask, is currently in testing in Halifax and close to beginning Phase 2.

“These studies are about the safety of the vaccine and should be completed by the end of April, and then we roll into Phase 2, which continues to look at safety as well as how well the vaccine induces an immune response in humans,” said Gerdts, who noted that VIDO is exploring opportunities to run some of the clinical trials at USask as well in the future. “Beginning in the fall, we hope to start a Phase 3 study to take the vaccine to tens of thousands of volunteers and see how well it works.”

With new provincial and federal funding, VIDO’s vaccine manufacturing facility is scheduled to be completed on campus by the fall, and projected to begin production in 2022. It will be the next step in the advancement of VIDO and USask as a major national hub for vaccine research and development.

“Researchers from across the university are working with our scientists here together, so there is lots of collaborative work being completed,” said Gerdts. “VIDO, in my mind, has really become one of Canada’s go-to places for COVID-19 research. Over the last 12 months, we have worked with more than 80 companies, and 40 of them Canadian companies. Many of the Canadian vaccines currently in development and going forward, that work was done here at VIDO.”

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