Unlocking secrets to vaccines

di Priscilla Pajdo del October 21, 2020

TORONTO - We are nearing nine months since the first reported case of coronavirus in Canada. There is renewed interest in where we are headed as a nation dealing with a resurgence of cases. People want to move forward. Yet, parts of the country seem to be moving backward and causing a re-imposition of restrictions.

While the belief is that a vaccine will help, one has not been approved yet in Canada. For the most part, the best course of action to prevent infection is proper hand hygiene, physical distancing and the use of face coverings.

Scientists around the world are working tirelessly to find a miracle vaccine to protect humans from diseases like coronavirus.

One such place is at McMaster University, in Hamilton, ON. McMaster is a leader in infectious disease research and innovation; it is where you will find Dr. Arinjay Banerjee.

His work in virology and understanding the connection between bats and viruses that cause serious illness in humans is compelling. It seems his theory is that “the secret to what makes humans tick lies in animals”.

In fact, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over 75% of new emerging infectious diseases in humans originate in animals. This is believed to be the case with the Covid-19.

While there may be mysteries around the virus’s true origin, one thing that researchers agree on is that the fuzzy flying creatures co-exist with coronavirus to little effect. Humans, on the other hand, develop more severe symptoms which have proven deadly, especially among the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

During the pandemic’s early stages (March 2020), Dr. Banerjee made history along with other Canadian scientists, when he helped isolate the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19. This accomplishment made it easier for researchers to have access to and study the pathogen for the purposes of testing methods, therapies and vaccines. As observed in humans, the virus can lead to serious illness and death.

In Canada, Covid-19 has claimed the lives of 9,792 people. As of October 20th, this represents a fatality rate of 4.9% of all confirmed positive cases (201,437).

By comparison, in 2003 when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spread across twenty-six countries, Canada had reported 251 cases and 43 deaths attributable to the disease. Based on the data derived from the WHO, by the end of 2003, the SARS fatality rate in Canada was 17% among the confirmed positive.

As with Covid-19, the SARS virus likely originated in animals which transferred to humans. Although still not certain, it was thought that the virus started in bats which spread to civet cats then to humans.

Research faded before a cure or vaccine was developed. It is for this reason that the research happening in Hamilton is of great significance. It may appear that the bat’s immune system may be better equipped to manage viruses such as Ebola, SARS, MERS and Covid-19.

Not to give these fascinating, flying mammals a bad wrap, but they may be considered the perfect incubator for such virulent viruses. When the Covid-19 virus is present in bats, it is expressed in liver, kidneys and intestines.

In humans, there is a varied range of symptoms. The greatest inflammatory response occurs in the lungs.

Through studying tissue and blood samples of brown bats in the lab at McMaster, the research team hope to discover what makes their immune systems so special and how they manage to control inflammation.

Unlocking these secrets may lead scientists to an effective treatment or vaccine.

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