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This article was published 30/3/2020 (540 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Xiaojian Yao recalls watching with shock as a new contagion swept across mainland China in late January; the number of infections grew each day, so too did the death count.
The Winnipeg virologist had a professional interest in the outbreak because of his role as director of the University of Manitoba’s Laboratory of Molecular Human Retrovirology, and he had a personal interest: the threat was encroaching on Beijing, where he is from.
Shock quickly turned to resolve for the 63-year-old professor. He became determined to contribute research that would help contain, treat and control the highly contagious COVID-19 virus.
"The virus has spread so fast because the whole population is vulnerable to viral invasion," Yao said by phone from his laboratory at Max Rady College of Medicine. "So I say vaccines are the key, that’s why so many groups in the world right now are working on vaccine development.
"I’m a virologist, so my only concern is the virus pandemic."
Yao is the lead investigator of a research team at the University of Manitoba studying a potential vaccine for COVID-19. His proposal was one of six selected by the federal government this month to receive funding specifically for vaccine research, with $326,578 coming from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and $270,550 from Research Manitoba.
Worldwide, members of the scientific community have started the difficult task of analyzing and understanding the novel coronavirus. Researchers are racing to find diagnostics, drugs and ultimately vaccines to be used in the battle against the disease.
Yao’s laboratory is working around the clock to test whether the receptor binding domain of COVID-19 could be a vaccine candidate, and researchers are using a university patented technology platform to test the theory.
"The pandemic happened so fast, so to use our technology to deliver a coronavirus vaccine, this is my dream," Yao said.
"I’m very excited. I work every day now in the laboratory," he said. "I’m very happy to contribute, and I will do my best if I can develop a vaccine that can be used to combat this virus we’re fighting."
Yao’s area of expertise is human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). His academic record stretches back more than 40 years. He received his medical degree from Suzhou University of Medicine in China in 1983 and worked as a physician before turning to research.
Yao said he was fascinated by the nature of viruses, how they survive and function within the host. He left medicine to complete his doctorate in molecular biology and retrovirology at the University of Montreal. In 2004, he was attracted to Manitoba’s research community and joined the U of M.
Yao says the technology they will trial with the novel coronavirus is unique to the U of M and represents a significant contribution to the overall body of research on COVID-19.
A molecule of the virus — called the spike protein — is key to infecting a host cell and is the main target of the host’s immune responses. Previous studies into SARS have shown the receptor binding domain of that virus has multiple epitopes (a molecule fragment) that produce potent neutralizing antibodies.
The antibody can bind to SARS and interfere with its ability to infect a cell. The question is whether the receptor binding domain of COVID-19 will behave similarly and produce an immune response.
The study is poised to lay the groundwork for the development and production of other vaccine candidates in the effort to control the pandemic. Trials on animals will begin this week, Yao said.
He made of point of wanting to reassure the public.
He said the work of researchers around the globe, which is being accelerated by increased government funding, means a treatment will be found.
Yao’s colleagues at the university have launched a clinical trial to determine whether common malaria medication can be used against COVID-19, and his collaborators across Canada and at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg are aggressively pursuing solutions.
"Other virologists, we will do our best to develop some way to make some treatments, prevention and vaccine available," he said. "There are so many people who are working, so who will be the fastest?"
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.