The COVID-19 pandemic was less than six months old when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to the podium in Montreal promising that Canada’s National Research Council would be able to start producing millions of doses by the end of 2021.
Nearly 1,000 days later, it hasn’t produced even a single clinical dose of the drug.
But that day is coming.
Earl Brown, a virologist and professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, said it would be impossible to build a new plant from scratch in less than a year.
“As soon as I heard the news, I thought, ‘Well, two or three years from now is too optimistic.'” You have to have a goal, but that goal is not realistic. “
Still, if another coronavirus pandemic hits the world, Canada is in a better position to make its own vaccines and medicines now than it was three years ago when COVID-19 arrived, Brown said.
“We went further because we took the initiative,” he said.
In the summer of 2020, when Canada was negotiating a contract to buy a COVID-19 vaccine, then-Procurement Minister Anita Anand asked each company if it could manufacture the vaccine in Canada. They all said no.
Anand, who is now defense minister, said they all concluded that Canada’s biomanufacturing capabilities were “too limited to justify the investment of capital and expertise to start manufacturing in Canada.”
That left Canada dependent on imported vaccines, limiting early supplies and driving up costs. The government promises to change.
Between May 2020 and April 2022, Canada committed more than $1.3 billion to build or expand 12 biomanufacturing plants to produce vaccines and antibody treatments.
Most are still under construction, but Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Friday that everything is going well.
“I think we’re in a better position as a country than we’ve ever been,” he said.
When he started as minister in January 2021, he said Canada had the capacity to produce, or at least complete, about 30 million doses of vaccine a year.
GlaxoSmithKline makes its seasonal flu vaccine at its Quebec facility. Sanofi Pasteur makes the polio vaccine in vials in Toronto, but the vaccine itself is produced in Europe. Most other common immunizations, such as the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, are imported.
Sanofi is one of 12 companies currently expanding production capacity. In March 2021, it received $415 million from Canada and another $55 million from the Ontario government to build a flu vaccine factory at its Toronto campus by 2026.
All of these new projects will allow Canada to produce nearly 600 million doses of vaccines a year, Champagne said, but most are still one to three years away.
The National Research Council’s new biologics manufacturing center is one of the few ready to produce the vaccine by spring 2023 — as many as 2 million doses a month. It just doesn’t have one to produce.
The brand new $126 million factory is due to be completed in June 2021, somewhat within the timeline Trudeau proposed. It took another 14 months to obtain a Health Canada license to manufacture the vaccine.
But the only vaccine it agreed to produce was pluttering. Maryland-based Novavax said in February it may not survive. It took too long to bring its COVID-19 vaccine to market, and it lost out to Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
The NRC said it was up to Novavax to comment on the status of its Canadian production plans. The company has yet to respond to The Canadian Press.
BioVectra, a Prince Edward Island-based biopharmaceutical contract manufacturer, is also looking for a vaccine partner. It’s a new manufacturing facility in Charlottetown, built in part with a $39.8 million federal grant, that could eventually produce 160 million doses of the vaccine a year.
Chief executive Oliver Technow said construction began in April 2022, with the first engineering batch expected to be produced by the end of the year.
That time frame was “remarkable,” he said.
But as for when any vaccine might end up in patients’ arms, “that depends a lot on our customers,” Technow said.
He said BioVectra is now in discussions with several companies. The site can produce several types of vaccines, including the popular mRNA vaccine. The technology was recently used in a COVID-19 vaccine, but multiple trials are underway to use it against other infectious diseases and cancers.
The need for mRNA vaccines is “just beginning,” Technow said.
Moderna is banking on that. The company was formed to bring mRNA vaccines to market, and its COVID-19 vaccine is its first successful product. It has limited manufacturing capacity at its Massachusetts headquarters and relies on a partnership with Swiss contract drugmaker Lonza to fulfill its non-U.S. orders, including those in Canada.
Patricia Gauthier, managing director of Moderna Canada, said the company is currently building manufacturing plants in Canada, Kenya, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The Canadian factory in Laval, a suburb of Montreal, is expanding rapidly, she said. Announced just a year ago, the site was selected last summer and construction began in November. Now that the walls and roof are in place, doses are expected to start rolling off the line by the end of next year, she said.
Health Canada’s licensing process will dictate when doses will be ready for patient use, but Gauthier said he hopes that will be in late 2024 or early 2025.
The facility should be able to produce up to 100 million doses of the original COVID-19 vaccine, or 200 million booster doses, annually. It also plans to make RSV and flu vaccines there, although neither has yet to be authorized.
“We’re making sure Canada has everything it needs,” Gauthier said.
Ottawa made no direct financial contribution to Moderna for the plant. Instead, it has struck a deal to buy vaccines that will roll off the factory’s production line.
Eleven of the new projects involved vaccines. The twelfth is AbCellera Biologics’ new manufacturing facility, which will produce antibody therapeutics.
Vaccines help the body stimulate antibodies against a specific virus to ward off potential future infections. Antibody therapy uses antibodies produced in the laboratory to help the body fight off an infection that has started.
AbCelera teamed up with Eli Lilly for the first COVID-19 antibody treatment. Research and development takes place at AbCelera in Vancouver, but manufacturing takes place in the United States.
In May 2020, Canada funded AbCelera with US$175.6 million to build Canada’s first antibody therapeutic manufacturing plant in Vancouver within the next five years. Murray McCutcheon, AbCelera’s senior vice president of corporate development, said construction of the new 130,000-square-meter facility is on schedule.
Construction began last summer and should be completed by 2024. The first clinical batches should be produced in 2025, McCutcheon said.
“Early on in COVID, we recognized that there was no opportunity to manufacture these drugs in Canada and we were dependent on foreign suppliers,” McCutcheon said.
“So we see an opportunity to make sure that we can not only discover and develop these treatments here, but manufacture them here so that Canadian patients can be the first to receive them.”
The only project on the list that could fail entirely is Medicago’s manufacturing facility in Quebec City. The company received $173 million from Canada in 2020 to push its COVID-19 efforts forward and build a new production facility.
The vaccine was successful in trials, but the World Health Organization refused to even consider its application for authorization because the company is partly owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris.
Health Canada approved the vaccine and Canada paid for 20 million doses, but Canada’s ongoing supply of COVID-19 vaccines is provided entirely by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Medicago cannot be approved for use elsewhere without authorization from the WHO.
Philip Morris sold its stake in the company in December, but in February Japan’s Mitsubishi, the sole remaining owner, said it would close Medicago’s operations.
Champagne said Friday that he spoke with Quebec City’s mayor about the issue this week and that he hopes finding a new partner could at least salvage the research the company has done.
Medicago is the only company in the world that produces plant-based vaccines.
Champagne did not say whether Canada would have a chance of recovering its investment if the company did disappear entirely.
— Mia Rabson, Canadian Press
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