A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a “Vaccine COVID-19” sticker and a medical syringe in this photo illustration. CNS photo/Dado Ruvic, Reuters

Canadian vaccine to tackle COVID — and more

By 
  • December 9, 2020

Not just a vaccine but a cheap, ethical, Canadian vaccine is on its way before 2022, and it’s not just a solution for COVID-19, says the new chief operating officer at Eyam Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics.

“We are going to be a unique platform in Canada, with production facilities in Canada, addressing the domestic supply and domestic infrastructure issue that is very important to Canadians right now,” Eyam COO Reno Pontarollo said.

The Eyam COVID-19 vaccine candidate is only just now rolling into animal trials, as opposed to the completed human trials at Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson and Oxford University-Astra Zeneca, leading to the Dec. 2 regulatory approval for Pfizer in the United Kingdom. 

Production capacity for Eyam’s vaccines doesn’t yet exist, but Pontarollo began scouting possible locations in his first week on the job early in December.

“Our production is going to be very rapid to scale up,” he said. “We won’t be first to market, but we will be right to market.”

Though reluctant to commit to a definite timetable, Pontarollo pushed back against the suggestion Eyam’s vaccine might not be ready until 2022.

“Hopefully we will be before 2022,” he said. “We think that’s possible with the way the vaccine game has changed in the face of the pandemic.”

The Eyam vaccine is based on the research of Dr. Wilfred Jeffries at the University of British Columbia. Eyam now has a licensing agreement with UBC for Jeffries’ patents on a synthetic, mRNA vaccine platform that is capable of being effective at ultra-low doses. Early on Jeffries’ research attracted an endorsement and investment from Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller.

Tracing back cell lines to voluntary abortions in the 1960s and 1970s is simply not an issue for Eyam. The ethical issue Pontarollo wants to confront is just pricing and fair distribution in the poorer countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia.

“We are actually looking at potentially developing mobile vaccine production facilities. We also don’t require a cold chain for this,” he said.

“Eyam is looking definitely at developing nations and making sure that this vaccine is able to get to them and in good time and at cost.”

While it’s natural that people are following the race to the first available vaccine, vaccines such as Eyam’s that come along later are still relevant, said Pontarollo.

“To have an effective vaccination program against COVID, you’re going to have to have multiple targets,” he said.

There’s no such thing as a 100-per-cent effective vaccine for all people. When portions of the population don’t respond to the first vaccine, it’s important to have other options, said Pontarollo.

Eyam is not focused solely on vaccinating against the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

“Eyam is basically, really bringing a vaccine 2.0 approach to this,” Pontarollo said. 

The technology the company is developing can be used to rapidly develop vaccines when the next pandemic hits, as well as diseases right now “that do not have an efficacious vaccine, or no vaccine at all,” he said.

Pope Francis, who worked in a lab before entering the Jesuit novitiate in 1958, has spoken positively about the prospect of vaccine development, but emphasized the ethical issue of access for the poor.

“If anyone should be given preference, let it be the poorest, the most vulnerable, those who so often experience discrimination because they have neither power nor economic resources,” Francis told the UN General Assembly in September.

The positive feedback Eyam has had from the Church in Canada has been important to the fledgling company, said Pontarollo.

“We want to be part of that pro-vaccination story. We want to help inform or educate, communicate and dialogue with the public on this,” he said.

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