uOttaKnow podcast transcription

Season 1, Episode 2

GWEN MADIBA - Welcome to uOttaKnow, a forward thinking, expert driven, current affairs podcast produced by the University of Ottawa. Hello, I'm Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa. I am also the co-president of the Equal Chance Foundation.  uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa researchers and alumni at the cutting edge of their fields for thought-provoking discussions on today’s trending topics.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, much attention and hope has been attached to the development of a vaccine, with conversations swirling around pandemic fatigue, burnout, and second waves. The dream of a successful vaccine as leading the way out of the current situation is seen as key. However, challenges of mass distribution, access, safety, and effectiveness have tapered hopes that the path ahead will be straightforward and smooth sailing. To help shed light on the topic of immunization, we are joined by Dr. John Bell, professor with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa and senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. Dr. Bell is one of the world’s leading experts in the fields of viruses, vaccine production, and immunotherapies.

Dr. Bell, thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

DR. JOHN BELL - It's my pleasure, Gwen.

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GWEN MADIBA - Knowing that a vaccine for COVID-19 is in development provides people with some reassurance during very uncertain times. So, to cut to the million-dollar question, when do you think, realistically, we can hope to see a vaccine ready?

DR. JOHN BELL - That is a loaded question, Gwen, but I'll do my best to answer that. I mean, as everyone knows, to make a vaccine, it usually takes about seven to 10 years. And the reason it takes so long is [that] one has to be very careful about what you’re giving to healthy people. It’s not something that you want to give to a healthy person and cause problems for them. And whatever we discover in the lab is one thing, everything is controlled, but out in the real world, things are different. So usually it takes a long time to get a vaccine ready because you have to do a lot of testing with different kinds of people, different races, different ages, different genders and sexes, and so on. And so, what's happening now is trying to accelerate that process and make it shorter than the [current] time. So, I think there are, right now, somewhere around 200 different vaccine candidates being tested. And some of them, if not many of them, will be very effective. And so, what really is happening now is trying to find a way to shorten the long testing period to make sure that we put out something that’s very safe and also effective. So, I think the chances are good that we’ll get there. But it is going to take some changes in the way that we’ve done things in the past.

GWEN MADIBA - And so when the vaccine is released, how safe and efficient can we expect it to be?

DR. JOHN BELL - Yeah, that's a great question. Because you know, some viruses, we’ve not been able to make vaccines [for]. To give you an example, that would be the AIDS virus - HIV. We have not been able to make a vaccine for that one, but that’s a completely different beast. It’s not like this coronavirus. The coronavirus – we know a lot about it. We know that it doesn’t really have a lot of mutations in it, although it has mutated somewhat during the time of the pandemic. It’s not like a virus like HIV, which really has a very high mutation frequency and makes it very challenging to make a vaccine for. Also the biology of HIV is completely different: it is able to hide itself in the immune system, but this [corona]virus cannot. And so, this virus is one that we think we’ll be able to make a vaccine for. And in fact, many of the vaccines [that] have been tested in animals look very, very effective. So, I think it’s highly likely that we'll get one that’s very effective. The question about safety is a great question. And we believe [that] in the testing that people are doing that there’s lots of signs that it will be very safe as well. But as I said earlier, you know, in the human population, we’re all very different. You and I are quite different. And so I think one has to really test this in a broad range of people to understand how safe it will be, and maybe we’ll find some vaccines are good for [the] elderly and not so good for young people and vice versa, as an example. So, it’s just the test that we have to do to figure it out, but I'm optimistic that we will find something that will be safe and effective, [if] not a combination of things to be safe and effective.

GWEN MADIBA - Vaccine development has been taking place at an unprecedented speed internationally. We have also seen various political pressures visible in this development. What are some of the concerns relating to the pressure placed on vaccine development to happen as quickly as possible?

DR. JOHN BELL - Yeah, this is a real concern, I think, for everybody. And I think it's really unfortunate when politics and science get mixed together, because really what we should do is follow the science. We should follow what science is telling us as we go along and not try to do shortcuts. I know everybody, myself included, [we want] something really fast, we really want to get back to life, to the way it used to be. But you know, you can’t just have magical thinking and think that’s going to happen, and wishful thinking, you have to actually do the experiment, which is really what happens in these early phase trials with people to really understand what’s going on. And this should not be driven by a political agenda. As scientists, we want this to happen as fast as anybody else does. And there’s no need to actually overlay that with, as I said, wishful thinking and try to pressure something out. That’s not quite right, because that will only lead to a disaster.

GWEN MADIBA - Around the world, we are seeing governments signing agreements with pharmaceutical companies to establish a guaranteed supply base of potential vaccine candidates. Canada is also lining up to place orders. What is the reasoning behind this?

DR. JOHN BELL - Well, it’s actually a good strategy. And the reason is, as I mentioned, we don’t know what’s going to be the best vaccine or combinations of vaccines: we just don't know yet. And so, I think what Canada is doing is placing a number of bets on the table to say this one looks good. But we won’t know for sure until we get to the final stages of testing. But at the same time, we need to have a supply of vaccines for Canadians. And, you know, if we don't make some contingency plans now to approach a number of these vaccine developers, we may be left out in the cold. So, we have to actually say we’re putting some money on the table, we’re going to actually, if the vaccine looks good, we want to be able to place our order and get Canadians vaccinated as quickly as possible. So, it makes it a good, I would say almost business, strategy to approach a number of these manufacturers and vaccine producers because we just don’t know which is going to be the best one. And maybe it will take more than one, so it’s good at this point to make that bet. And some fears over unequal access to the vaccine have also been raised from a historical lens. Is this fear justified? Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t have to even be historical, when we’ve seen it already in the last year or so, that some countries are saying we want to supply up, whatever the supply is, for our own country, our own country and not show it around the world. So, this is a real concern. I think that the way Canada could be better off is if we had invested in the infrastructure to have our own vaccine production facilities. We didn’t do that, unfortunately. But that would have been the thing to have done. And hopefully, we’ll do that in the future, because then we control access to these for everyone. But I think it’s a reasonable concern, that there won’t be equitable distribution of vaccines. You know, we’re developing one, as you know, and we’re really hoping that it would be made available to everyone around the world, not just to Canadians, if it’s effective. But that’s going to take some strategy to make sure that’s the case.

GWEN MADIBA - In April, your lab received grants in partnership with the Thistledown Foundation to support the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Can you talk to us about how you’re harnessing your pioneering research on cancer-fighting viruses to create a vaccine for COVID 19?

DR. JOHN BELL - Yeah, sure. So yeah, first of all, it was great. I mean, as you know, this foundation was formed by the founders of Shopify, and it’s a great organization. They originally were designed to try to, or their mission was to help, you know, with climate change, and so on, but they quickly adapted. So that was an amazing thing; we were lucky to get one of their grants. And it happened very, very quickly. In a matter of a few days, we had the money in hand, which is just unheard of in the science world. So that was really great. And something that people from Ottawa did for us. But the reason we got the grant is because I think we are known throughout the world for our work with viruses to try to treat cancer. And one of the ways these viruses work is by stimulating the patient’s immune system to recognize their cancer as a foreign body and then eliminate it. So, with that same knowledge, that same understanding of viruses, we thought we could use that same kind of concept and create a vaccine that would attack COVID- virus-infected cells, and so essentially make a prophylactic vaccine. So, we’ve been using that ever since to create a number of different vectors. And we’re testing down combinations to see which ones are the best ones.

GWEN MADIBA - At what stage of testing is your lab currently at?

DR. JOHN BELL - So where we are right now is we’ve made a number of vaccine candidates that we think are all interesting, and we’re in the midst of testing these now in a number of small animal models. And we will, as soon as we have the whole data package that we think supports one or the other of these candidates, we’ll approach Health Canada to see what they say about whether or not we can then move that into people.

GWEN MADIBA - The research community so often transcends borders, and is able to think globally, is a true strength. Do you think that this crisis has brought the research community closer together?

DR. JOHN BELL - That’s probably a fair statement, I think we, as you pointed out, we already did work together quite well. A part of the job that I really love is, you know, I work with people all over the world, make good friends all over the world. And we share ideas, I think, you know, with the Internet, which has allowed us to really communicate in different ways; we share ideas all the time on a daily basis. But I think [that] in the current crisis, people are working together even more, and we’re sharing knowledge, and talking about what we’re doing and making sure we don’t duplicate but actually synergize with each other, or make each other’s work better. So, I think the scientific community at least has rallied around this issue and tried to make things happen faster. For instance, we have some things that we’re using in our tests that were shared with us from people from the United States, at Washington University, in the ’States. And so, you know, and we’re working with some people who work at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, so they’re sharing their knowledge and some of their agents with us, and we’re doing the same in return. So, I think it’s a really great opportunity for us to continue to build and do that internationally.

GWEN MADIBA - Doctor, we’ve also seen in our communities an outpouring of support for the medical community. Is there also a potential that this societal goodwill could transfer to allow for more support for research?

DR. JOHN BELL - That is certainly something we would hope for. I think that people, you know, in a crisis, in a pandemic like this, we turn to the science and medical world and we say, help us out. And you know, a better way to do this would be to prevent the whole thing from happening in the first place by invested in science earlier on and training earlier on. So, I’m hoping that people recognize the value that science brings and how it can be used to save people’s lives. And therefore, [they] would be more willing to support science. It’s really something that’s also an economic driver; you know, countries that invest in science do better economically. So, there’s a lot of reasons why one would want to do this, and I certainly hope that that’s going to be the case.

GWEN MADIBA - Thank you, Dr. Bell for being our guest on uOttaKnow. We appreciate your insights into the field of vaccine research, and we are grateful for the work that you do.

DR. JOHN BELL - It’s my pleasure, Gwen.

GWEN MADIBA - uOttaKnow is produced by the University of Ottawa Alumni Relations team. This episode was recorded at Pop-Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people as the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their long-standing relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English and French, or to find out more about uOttaKnow, please refer to the description of this episode.