Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Human clinical trials begin for Quebec-made COVID-19 vaccine candidate

Medicago’s first phase of clinical trials will test a plant-based product on 180 healthy men and women, aged 18 to 55

Canadian trials have just begun for a prospective COVID-19 vaccine but its Quebec-based manufacturer is already downplaying its potential impact.

Dr. Bruce Clark, president and CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Medicago, cautions observers against holding unrealistic expectations that his product — or any of the numerous vaccines in development globally — will bring the pandemic to a screeching halt.

“Whatever vaccine we get in this first round — unless it’s a miracle — it’s not going to be perfect,” says Clark, whose company began trials for its proposed vaccine Monday in Quebec City.

“It’s going to have to undergo development, it’s going to take probably years to come up with an understanding of the right vaccine, the right approach. It’s not the panacea.

“To assume that we can have, in 18 months, the solution to a pandemic that comes around once in a generation, is naive.”

So much is still unknown about COVID-19, notes Clark, including how it may manifest during the flu season later this year.

He suspects a more likely scenario is that a vaccine will offer only part of the solution, along with new therapeutics and ongoing public health interventions.

Medicago’s first phase of clinical trials will test a plant-based product on 180 healthy men and women, aged 18 to 55.

The randomized, partially blinded study uses technology that does not involve animal products or live viruses like traditional methods.

Clark notes that vaccine developers typically use chicken eggs to propagate a virus, but Medicago uses recombinant technology involving the genetic sequence of a virus, with living plants as the host.

The resulting virus-like particles mimic the shape and dimensions of a virus, which allows the body to recognize them and spark an immune response.

Clark says the plant-based approach is significantly faster and offers more consistent results than egg-based or cell-based methods.

While it takes five to six months to propagate a virus in eggs, the plant-based technique requires just five to six weeks, he says.

“In a pandemic, something like COVID, if you’re able to cut that much time off development, you have a substantial impact on public health.”

READ MORE: Would you take a COVID-19 vaccine? Poll suggests most Canadians say yes

Meanwhile, Clark says viruses are prone to mutations as they adapt and grow in an egg, which could result in a vaccine that doesn’t exactly match the circulating virus. In contrast, “a plant is a plant,” and that makes production easily scalable.

“One plant behaves like 100,000 plants,” he says.

The trial will evaluate three different dosages alone, or with one of two adjuvants provided by GlaxoSmithKline and Dynavax. An adjuvant can boost the effectiveness of a vaccine for a better immunological response, thereby reducing the required dose, Clark adds.

He hopes to know the effectiveness of the adjuvants and dosing by October, and then kick off a second, more targeted trial phase involving about 1,000 participants.

Clark says the third phase would involve about 15,000 to 20,000 subjects, and may be a global study, depending on circumstances of the pandemic.

If the vaccine is successful, Clark points to another uncertainty.

Because the company’s commercial plant is across the border in Durham, N.C., he says there’s no guarantee of a Canadian supply.

“‘Guarantee’ is a strong word,” says Clark. “Strange things happen to borders in the context of a pandemic.”

Such border complications were made clear to Canadians in April when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau complained about problems with incomplete or non-existent deliveries of critical COVID-19 supplies. At the time, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered U.S. producers to prioritize the domestic market.

Clark suggested similar hurdles could impact vaccine distribution, putting immediate pressure on Medicago to complete construction of a large-scale manufacturing facility in its home base of Quebec City.

“Certainly, we need a facility in Canada,” Clark says.

“There’s no guarantee on the easy flow of materials back and forth across the border should we have a successful vaccine. We have to keep the focus on completing the Canadian facility so that we have domestic capacity. I think this is what most countries are concerned about.”

By the end of 2023, the Quebec City plant is expected to be able to produce up to one billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine annually.

Until then, Medicago says it expects to be able to make approximately 100 million doses by the end of 2021, assuming its trials are successful.

Clark says countries must temper any nationalist agendas that might emerge with a viable vaccine and acknowledge that the fight against COVID-19 is global.

Meeting that demand would require multiple manufacturers, multiple distribution routes, and lots of co-operation, he says, possibly through the World Health Organization.

“There has to be some ability to share those around and distribute, whether that’s through an entity like the WHO, or something equivalent.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Seventy-four international students are expected to come to Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district for the last half of the 2020021 school year, says the district. (School District 68 image)
Nanaimo school district educating 160 international students during pandemic school year

Fifty-seven students from abroad arrived Jan. 14-18, says SD68

Rendering of two residential buildings proposed for the corner of Haliburton and Milton streets. (Matthew T. Hansen Architect image)
Two five-storey residential buildings approved for Haliburton Street

City council issues development permit for 79-unit complex at Haliburton and Milton

Ty Wesley, Nicole Darlington and Cameron Macaulay (from left) performed in the Beholder Entertainment production <em>Gender Sucks!</em> in the 2020 Nanaimo Fringe Festival. (Video still courtesy Sam Wharram)
Nanaimo Fringe Festival artist lottery open to local and B.C. playwrights

Organizers hope to stage plays in-person at indoor and outdoor venues this summer

Nanaimo RCMP investigated after a threat was made at Woodgrove Centre on Tuesday, Jan. 19. (News Bulletin file photo)
Threat directed at Woodgrove Centre, Nanaimo RCMP investigating

Officers have searched areas of the mall accessible to shoppers and have deemed it safe

(News Bulletin file photo)
Car crashes along the Nanaimo Parkway, driver abandons vehicle

Mazda with ‘extensive damage’ found in the ditch in the early-morning hours Jan. 19

Syringe is prepared with one of B.C.’s first vials of Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Victoria, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload stays steady with 465 more Tuesday

No new outbreaks in health care facilities, 12 more deaths

Stand up paddleboarder Christie Jamieson is humbled to her knees as a pod of transient orcas put on a dramatic show on Jan. 19 in the Ucluelet Harbour. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Ucluelet paddle boarder surrounded by pod of orcas

“My whole body is still shaking. I don’t even know what to do with this energy.”

Inmates at Metchosin’s William Head Institution are being given COVID-19 vaccines as part of the first phase. Around 600 inmates will be vaccinated in the coming days. (Black Press Media file photo)
William Head prison inmates in receive first doses of COVID vaccine

Priority set for older inmates and those with underlying medical conditions

Vancouver Island University. (File photo)
Province announces funding for VIU to train mental health workers

Provincial government says pandemic has intensified need for mental health supports

A mattress on fire gutted the second floor hallway at Town Park Apartments C-block Jan. 17. (Port Hardy Fire Rescue images)
‘Suspicious’ Port Hardy apartment fire could keep tenants out of their homes for months

A burning mattress created smoke and heat, causing several tenants to jump from windows

A Courtenay resident labours to remove the snow build-up from around her car in February 2019. The area may see snow throughout the coming weekend. Black Press file photo
Snow, winter might not be done with Vancouver Island quite yet

Flurries, snow and cold temps predicted for the weekend for mid-Island

The City of Nanaimo’s Community Services Building at 285 Prideaux St., where the 7-10 Club is located, will host a warming centre seven days a week through March 31. (City of Nanaimo photo)
Warming centres for people experiencing homelessness open today in Nanaimo

City of Nanaimo and social agencies partnering on Wallace and Prideaux locations

Egg producers in B.C. aren’t obligated to reveal their production sites. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Officials say there’s not enough Vancouver Island eggs to meet demand

BC Egg Marketing Board doesn’t regulate labelling, supply needed from off-Island

New Westminster TV production designer, Rick Whitfield, has designed an office in a box for British Columbians in need of a private workspace. (BC Box Office photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. man designs ‘box office’ solution for those working from home

‘A professionally designed workspace on your property, away from the distractions of home’

Most Read