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When will there be a COVID-19 vaccine, and will it be safe? These are the questions on everyone’s minds as we live through another wave of coronavirus outbreaks. 

MUHC vaccines expert and MI4 scientist Dr. Brian Ward is a key player in development of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate in Canada. In a recent presentation to MUHC Foundation staff and volunteers, he provided an update on the global progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine. One particularly eye-opening fact was that we need 15.6 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to immunize the world. That’s two vaccines for each of the 7.8 billion people on the planet.

“We need to hope that many of these vaccines, 15 or 20 even, make it to licensure and large scale production,” says Dr. Ward. “If we don’t look globally, this disease will come back again and again.”

Though the media often speaks of the race for a vaccine, in reality, multiple vaccine development teams must succeed to safeguard our global population against the coronavirus. Dr. Ward also cautions that we must be patient.

“There are many vaccines in development, but even with the most optimistic outlook, we are talking about eight to nine billion doses of vaccine by the end of 2021. That means protecting between 4 and 4.5 billion people, half of the world’s population. We need to bring more vaccine development efforts together in order to make enough doses for the entire global population,” he says.

Another issue that is top-of-mind for many is vaccine safety. Several large vaccine trials have been halted in the past few months, raising concerns about the speed at which vaccines are being developed. While phase II and III trials may turn up side effects, Dr. Ward reminds us that every physician takes an oath to “first, do no harm.” Though COVID-19 research is advancing at a breakneck pace, physicians and scientists are taking every step to ensure safety.

In addition to his role at the MUHC, Dr. Ward is Chief Medical Officer of biotechnology company Medicago. This Quebec-based company is currently conducting the final stage of clinical trials for its COVID-19 vaccine. Medicago takes a unique approach to vaccine development, producing vaccines using plants.

“We use an Australian relative of the tobacco plant as our bioreactor to produce a recombinant vaccine. The plant is infected with the virus, and a virus-like particle is produced. Those virus-like particles are injected into the human body and they elicit a very strong antibody and t-cell response,” says Dr. Ward.

That strong antibody response is important for conveying immunity, which will be obtained after two doses of the new vaccine. Though their plant technology is unique, Medicago’s approach to the vaccine uses a traditional vaccine model that has been proven.

“We use an adjuvant (a vaccine component) that he been tested in hundreds of millions of people already,” says Dr. Ward. “We have a track record of safety.”

So when will we get the long-promised COVID-19 vaccine?

“If all goes well, we expect our trial to conclude in Spring 2021, followed by Health Canada approval,” says Dr. Ward. “After that, we will start producing millions of doses per month, doses that will go to Canadians first.”

Though vaccinating the entire world is a daunting task, we can feel confident that researchers like Dr. Ward are working toward this very achievement. 

To hear Dr. Ward speak about vaccines, check out our Health Matters podcast.

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