Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology in a lab on the University of Alberta campus. The Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology is involved in the critical work to help stop the spread of the novel Coronavirus on February 10, 2020. Photo by Shaughn Butts / Postmedia

University of Alberta researchers, as they have done before, are hot on the trail of finding both a vaccine and a treatment for the COVID-19 virus.

Distinguished virologist Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, famous for developing the drug lamivudine for treating Hepatitis B, is working with the equally well-known Dr. Michael Houghton, testing anti-viral compounds for possible effectiveness against COVID-19.

In 2003-04, Dr. Houghton developed the leading vaccine candidate for the SARS outbreak. SARS – also of the coronavirus family — subsided before a vaccine needed to be mass-produced

At least eight research groups at the University of Alberta are working around the clock on ways to stop this global pandemic.

“We’re fortunate to have the resources of the Li Ka Shing Institute for Virology,” says Dr. Tyrrell of the world-class U of A facility for the study of infectious viral diseases. “The university recently built level-three laboratories at the institute – the highest level of containment. That was timely.”

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Most promising is the testing, by U of A Medical Microbiology and Immunology department chair Dr. Matthias Gotte, of a compound originally developed by global drug company Gilead for the treatment of the Ebola virus. The compound is already in COVID-19 clinical trials in the USA and China.

Drs. Tyrrell, Joanne Lemieux and John Vederas are testing compounds that inhibit enzymes within the virus. In his university lab, distinguished biochemist Dr. Michael James is testing other potential enzyme inhibitors.

Environmental chemist Dr. Chris Le,  director of the university’s Analytical and Environmental Toxicology division, is closing in on the creation of a quick, on-site virus-detection test.

Also on the diagnostics front is Dr. Matthew Croxton’s rapid genetic sequencing of the coronavirus for public health purposes.   Well-known myth-buster Dr. Tim Caufield has been funded to map and counter misinformation about the coronavirus outbreak.

Taking aim at COVID-19 from a very different direction, with the possibility of an unexpected breakthrough, is another highly regarded University of Alberta researcher, Dr. John Lewis.

Lewis created Entos Pharmaceuticals to commercialize his Fusogenix drug-transport mechanism, a nano-sized “delivery platform” able to twist and turn through the body’s defenses to deliver a medical  payload to specific targeted sites.

Scientists on his team, says Dr. Lewis,  have developed a DNA payload, that, once delivered to target cells via the Fusogenix platform, can cause  “potent immune responses” – effectively a COVID-19 vaccine.

Not only immunity is on offer, believes Dr. Lewis. The “payload” should also protect against mutations of the COVID-19  virus and provide protection against all types of coronavirus.

“It’s a very promising technology,” says Dr. Lewis. “Potential partnerships (with major drug companies) are under discussion. We’re close to human trials.”

For his part, Dr. Tyrrell has never seen such swift response to a virus-caused pandemic.

“In mid-February, the Canadian Institute for Health Research put out the urgent call for virus research. Our scientists had a week to write their proposals. Within three days, five U of A groups were accepted. Ten days later, a second round of funding was announced. More U of A proposals were accepted.”

Dr. Tyrrell predicts actual anti-COVID-19 viral treatment drugs will emerge in a few months.

“Clinical trials by the big drug companies (to ensure human safety and effectiveness) are going flat-out. The usual cautionary rules have been thrown to the winds to make the process as fast as possible.

“Some of the big companies are already manufacturing and stockpiling the anti-virals being tested. And if two or three anti-viral drugs prove effective … it’s not a bad idea to have some choices.

“Vaccines will take a little longer, a year to a year-and-a-half.”

Dr. Tyrrell shakes his head. “Isn’t it amazing,” he says. “A small piece of RNA (a nucleic acid that carries viral genetic information) can bring the world to its knees.”