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Medical supplies and Canada flag

Medical supplies and Canada flag (beast01, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

Creating a Vaccine for COVID-19 in Canada

Adapted from Discovering COVID by Bioscience Association Manitoba

Summary

Learn how vaccines are developed, how they work and how some scientists in Canada are researching vaccines for COVID-19.

Did you ever think a microscopic virus would change our lives so much? In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made us start our days by reading about infection numbers across the world. We started washing our hands more often and social distancing whenever we went out. 

We talked about building a road back to normal, or the new normal. We were also very eager to hear about progress on the development of a vaccine. 

A vaccine helps stimulate your body's immune system. It contains a weakened form of the same organism that causes the disease. This helps your body generate antibodies to fight the disease.

Vaccines have saved thousands of lives in Canada and around the world in the last 50 years. Far fewer people are infected by vaccine-preventable diseases like Polio. The Polio vaccine was made available in Canada in 1955. Today the disease has almost vanished.

Did you know?

As of August 2020, More than 95 different COVID-19 vaccines have been developed around the world. But not all of them have worked. Making sure a vaccine is safe and effective can be a long process. Many tests, or clinical trials, need to be done before it is distributed to the public.

In this article, we will explore how vaccines are developed, why they work, and some of the research on COVID-19 vaccines in Canada. 

How long does it take to develop a vaccine?

Experience shows that it usually takes at least 4 years to develop a new vaccine.

A shorter timeline is only possible if there are a lot of exceptions to the usual process. Laboratory and research testing would have to be sped up. Approval to test the potential vaccines would have to be fast-tracked through all the health and safety phases. Then, Health Canada and other regulatory bodies would have to approve the vaccine. 

In Canada, we are lucky to have global leaders in vaccine research. Two of them are based at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Lauren Kelly co-leads two of the clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines happening in Manitoba. 

Dr. Lauren Kelly
Dr. Lauren Kelly (© Bioscience Association Manitoba. Used with permission).

Along with the team at her Clinical Pharmacology Lab, she studies drug safety. Dr. Peter Pelka and his team work on virus structures. In his research, he uses DNA technology to build potential vaccines for COVID-19.

Dr. Peter Pelka
Dr. Peter Pelka (© Bioscience Association Manitoba. Used with permission).

When asked how long it could take to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Pelka answered:

“To test the efficacy and safety of a potential vaccine, one [that] is likely to be immunizing billions of people, the stakes are extremely high. [The] false sense of security caused by a failed vaccine would do much more harm than no vaccine at all. I think a much more realistic, but nevertheless a very rushed timeline, would be something on the order of 18 months to 2 years. 

Our vaccine will be targeted to the Canadian population, as we are using the first Canadian isolate of SARS-CoV-2 to obtain the genes needed to make the vaccine. But that does not mean it will not be effective worldwide. The first study will involve testing of whether our vaccine induces the type of immunity a vaccine must elicit to be effective.” 

A summary of the drug approval process in Canada
A summary of the drug approval process in Canada (Let’s Talk Science based on an image by SPharm).

 

A lot of work is involved in creating a COVID-19 vaccine. No matter what the result, the knowledge created in this research can only help find a global solution. 

Prevention Is Better Than Cure

What makes a vaccine such a powerful tool?

When you're vaccinated, you are exposed to the disease-causing organism. But you have no risk of an actual infection. Instead, your body produces antibodies against the infection. You develop immunity. This protects you from the disease without getting the disease. It prevents infections before they even have a chance to start. 

Is a vaccine specific to a disease?

Yes, it is. If the structure of one virus is similar to another one, scientists may try to repurpose an existing vaccine. Unfortunately, this is not true for coronavirus. Nothing else is similar in shape. 

Electron microscope image of COVID-19
Electron microscope image of COVID-19 (Source: narvikk via iStockphoto).

 

What about herd immunity?

An individual needs to be vaccinated to develop immunity in their own body. Or, an individual may become immune after becoming ill and recovering from the virus. But herd immunity happens when most people in a population are immune. 

COVID-19 is dangerous and scientists don’t know a lot about it yet. They do know that a small proportion of people who get sick will die from the virus. People who get sick may also have health complications from the virus for a long time after their infection. So, the safest way to achieve herd immunity is through vaccination. 

If at least 3 out of 5 people (60%) of the population become immune to Coronavirus, there will be herd immunity. This means people who are immune will not get sick if they are exposed to the virus. Then, they won’t be able to spread the infection to people who are not immune. So, herd immunity helps slow the spread of the virus.

Because COVID-19 is a new virus, no one was immune to it when it started spreading around the world in January 2020. The virus spread so quickly because it didn’t meet any resistance. 

As of September 2020, the virus was still spreading worldwide. 29.3 million people around the world had been infected with COVID-19, including over 140 000 in Canada.

Did you know?

For up-to-date numbers of COVID-19 infections in Canada, check out this COVID-19 tracker from the Government of Canada.

This is a small percentage of the global population of over 7.8 billion people. Scientists still don’t know how long immunity lasts in people who have had the disease. And, as of August 2020, there was no safe, effective vaccine available. So, based on our current knowledge, we are not yet close to achieving global protection from COVID-19 through herd immunity.

Canada is in the race for COVID-19 treatments

Dr. Pelka believes “.... we can develop a vaccine that will work. And the more people try to do this using different approaches, the more likely it is that someone will succeed. However, HIV is an example of our failure to develop a vaccine in 40 years of trying. Nevertheless, this virus is a different beast and replicates very differently to HIV and I think a vaccine is a real possibility.”

When asked about treatment, Dr. Lauren Kelly said “Globally, there are several large consortiums evaluating different treatments for COVID-19, that have enrolled thousands of participants. We don’t have efficacy data from these studies just yet.”

She also raised new questions about children and COVID-19. “In children, we are seeing new presentations including a multi-system immune response, which really highlights the need to include children in COVID-19 research. There are many uncertainties especially about the long-term effects of the virus, and I am not sure we will have a clear answer on that for years to come.”

Researchers in Canada have always been an active part of the global race for treatments, research and therapeutics. This is true for COVID-19. While we are waiting for data from research, we do see progress across Canada. Many universities are running clinical trials for a potential vaccine. 

In the meantime, the best way to prevent COVID-19 is to follow the recommendations of Health Canada or your local health authority.

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever had a vaccine? What was it for?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your life?
  • Are you anxious for a vaccine to be developed for COVID-19? Why?
Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever had a vaccine? What was it for?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your life?
  • Are you anxious for a vaccine to be developed for COVID-19? Why?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Why is it important that any new vaccine be rigorously tested? 
  • How could a vaccine for COVID-19 impact the economy of Canada?
  • What are some of the motivations for developing a vaccine for COVID-19 within Canada?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Why is it important that any new vaccine be rigorously tested? 
  • How could a vaccine for COVID-19 impact the economy of Canada?
  • What are some of the motivations for developing a vaccine for COVID-19 within Canada?
Exploring Concepts
  • Why has the COVID-19 virus spread so quickly around the world? 
  • What is herd immunity? When will herd immunity be achieved for COVID-19?
  • How long does it typically take to develop a new vaccine? What is the shortest timeline that could be anticipated for a COVID-19 vaccine to be developed?
  • What are the pros and cons of developing vaccines versus treatments for a disease like COVID-19?
Exploring Concepts
  • Why has the COVID-19 virus spread so quickly around the world? 
  • What is herd immunity? When will herd immunity be achieved for COVID-19?
  • How long does it typically take to develop a new vaccine? What is the shortest timeline that could be anticipated for a COVID-19 vaccine to be developed?
  • What are the pros and cons of developing vaccines versus treatments for a disease like COVID-19?
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Why is the clinical trial process in place?
  • Is the scientific community close to knowing all there is to know about COVID-19? What aspects of COVID-19 still require additional research? 
  • What is the value of long-term or ongoing research initiatives on diseases like COVID-19 and HIV?
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Why is the clinical trial process in place?
  • Is the scientific community close to knowing all there is to know about COVID-19? What aspects of COVID-19 still require additional research? 
  • What is the value of long-term or ongoing research initiatives on diseases like COVID-19 and HIV?
Media Literacy
  • Find an article in the news about COVID-19. Does it mention anything about a vaccine or vaccine development for COVID-19? Does the article present a different perspective or timeline for vaccine development than this article presents? Explain.
  • Where would you look for the most up-to-date and credible information about COVID-19 vaccine development progress in Canada?
Media Literacy
  • Find an article in the news about COVID-19. Does it mention anything about a vaccine or vaccine development for COVID-19? Does the article present a different perspective or timeline for vaccine development than this article presents? Explain.
  • Where would you look for the most up-to-date and credible information about COVID-19 vaccine development progress in Canada?
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article supports teaching and learning of Health and Biology related to the topic of viruses, vaccination, public health, immune system and clinical trials. Concepts introduced include immune system, vaccines, efficacy, clinical trial, and herd immunity.
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students practice their critical thinking skills using a Pros & Cons Organizer learning strategy to consider the pros and cons of developing vaccines versus treatments for COVID-19. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons Organizer reproducibles for this article are available in [Google Doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • Students could predict the long-term implications of COVID-19 on Canadian society using a Consequence Map Learning Strategy. Ready-to-use Consequence Map reproducibles for this article are available in [Google Doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To consolidate learning from this article, teachers could provide students with an Exit Slip. A ready-to-use Exit Slip for this article is available in [Google Doc] and [PDF] formats.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article supports teaching and learning of Health and Biology related to the topic of viruses, vaccination, public health, immune system and clinical trials. Concepts introduced include immune system, vaccines, efficacy, clinical trial, and herd immunity.
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students practice their critical thinking skills using a Pros & Cons Organizer learning strategy to consider the pros and cons of developing vaccines versus treatments for COVID-19. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons Organizer reproducibles for this article are available in [Google Doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • Students could predict the long-term implications of COVID-19 on Canadian society using a Consequence Map Learning Strategy. Ready-to-use Consequence Map reproducibles for this article are available in [Google Doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To consolidate learning from this article, teachers could provide students with an Exit Slip. A ready-to-use Exit Slip for this article is available in [Google Doc] and [PDF] formats.

Learn more

How do vaccines work? (Oxford Vaccine Group) (2018) 

This animation by the Oxford Vaccine Group (2:27 min.) describes how viruses, antibodies, and vaccines help us develop immunity. 

How do vaccines work? (BC Centre for Disease Control) (2020) 

This article from the BC Centre for Disease Control explains the basics of vaccines, and includes a video for parents about getting children vaccinated (1:21 min.). 

Viruses (Updated) (2018)

This animated video (6:48 min.) from the Amoeba Sisters shows the structures of viruses and their life cycle.

Intro to Viruses 

A basic introduction to viruses from Khan Academy, explaining their structures and their life cycle. 

Herd Immunity (Herd Protection) (2019)

Article explaining herd immunity, with video (2:46 min.), from the University of Oxford's Vaccine Knowledge Project.

References

Corum, J., Grady, D., Wee, S-L. and Zimmer, C. (Updated August 20, 2020). Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker. The New York Times. Manitoba.ca. (n. d.) Where can I get myself, or my child, immunized?

Mock, J. (2020, May 4). Is Herd Immunity Our Best Weapon Against COVID-19? Discover Magazine.

World Health Organization. (2020 August 4). Estimating mortality from COVID-19.