Calgary vaccine developer reaches deal with Manitoba government after hearing no response from Ottawa

Mark Lowey
February 17, 2021

A Calgary biotechnology company in human trials with its COVID-19 vaccine has struck a supply deal with the Government of Manitoba after first sending the federal government a proposal and receiving no response.

In a February 5 open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and five federal cabinet ministers, Brad Sorenson, founder and CEO of Providence Therapeutics asked Ottawa to commit $150 million to accelerate production of 50 million doses of the company’s mRNA-based (messenger RNA) vaccine for delivery starting this September.

In exchange, the federal government would have the option to buy the first fully made-in-Canada vaccine at a 30 per cent discount to the market prices of the global vaccine providers. Providence’s vaccine uses mRNA technology like that used in COVID-19 vaccines supplied by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

In a video posted on Providence Therapeutic’s website, Sorenson said he emphasized in his letter to Trudeau “the importance of having domestic security of supply and laid out a plan that would see the entire manufacturing cycle sourced in Canada by 2022.” In addition, his company committed to prioritizing Canadians and providing a rapid response to any new variants of the COVID-19 virus or booster shots.

Providence announced on January 26 that it had started Phase 1 clinical trials in Toronto of its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, PTX-COVID19-B. Since then, Sorenson says that he has been inundated with calls, emails and texts, including from several provincial premiers, Canadian industry leaders,  health care and hospitality workers, and the media.

“But in the end, the people that I wanted to hear the message the most, the people that I addressed that (February 5) letter to refused to respond,” he said in the video. “The apathetic response of the Government of Canada to a serious proposal that could save lives is unacceptable.”

On February 11, when Sorenson still had not received a reply from anyone in the federal government, his company announced it had reached a deal with the Manitoba government, which has agreed to purchase 2 million doses of the company’s mRNA vaccine.

The agreement is contingent on Providence’s vaccine receiving Health Canada approval, and would see Manitoba get the first 200,000 doses at a price no higher than any other government might secure in the coming months.

The manufacturing and filling of vials with Providence’s vaccine will be done by one of the company’s collaborators, Emergent BioSolutions, at Emergent’s manufacturing facility in Winnipeg.

“The number one limiting factor in administering life-saving immunizations to Canadians is the lack of a secure domestic vaccine supply made here in Canada,” Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said in a statement. “Today, we are reliant on the federal government buying vaccines from pharmaceutical companies located offshore. The result has been Canadians receiving needed COVID-19 vaccines slower than almost 50 other countries, with weekly disruptions in supply.”

As of February 12, 2021, Canada ranked 50th place among the world’s countries in the total number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered per 100 people.

"Building a secure, made-in-Canada vaccine supply will help more Canadians get their COVID-19 vaccine sooner,” Pallister said. “This agreement is the first step in providing vaccine insurance for the present pandemic, for the future of this pandemic and for the next pandemic, too. We encourage other provinces and the federal government to join with us in building a national process that will help protect all Canadians.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has spoken with Providence Therapeutics’ Sorenson, said at a February 11 press conference that leaders across Canada are working to establish an inter-provincial task force on domestic vaccine supply.

Kenney said Alberta has not committed to a vaccine order from Providence but didn’t rule it out in the future. He said there are also promising vaccine projects in other parts of Canada, including a DNA-based COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Entos Pharmaceutical in Edmonton.

Like Sorenson, Entos Pharmaceutical’s CEO John Lewis has complained publicly about inadequate financial assistance from Ottawa and lack of federal leadership in investing in Canadian COVID vaccine developers.

Providence CEO implores federal government to take initiative

In his video, Sorenson described how he started Providence Therapeutics to work on a cancer vaccine using mRNA technology, after his son, Adam, was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer the day after his thirteenth birthday (he survived).

The company planned to enter clinical trials of its cancer vaccine in 2020. “Then COVID came and we put that cancer program on hold, a program that my son might need some day,” Sorenson said.

“Why? Because we had access to cutting-edge technology (mRNA) that could and is playing a major role in stopping the (COVID-19) pandemic. We had a moral obligation to do something.”

Throughout 2020, and largely without government support, Providence designed its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, negotiated and paid for intellectual property licenses, and established collaborations with 10 large Canadian companies and research institutions.

Providence completed more than five pre-clinical animal trials to establish the safety and efficacy of its vaccine, Sorenson said. Those pre-clinical trials showed Providence’s vaccine to be at least as effective as Moderna’s and BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines.

Providence also qualified a GMP (Good Manufacturing Process) manufacturing process and facility, and manufactured enough of its vaccine in Canada to complete all of the company’s clinical trials.

The company plans to move to Phase 2 clinical trials in May 2021, pending regulatory approval. Providence has partnered with Northern RNA, a Calgary-based vaccine components manufacturer, for vaccine raw materials.

“We can make the vaccines in Canada and we can not only help Canadians, we can help the world,” Sorenson said. “We can stop trying to pay to jump the queue (for vaccines) and we can contribute to the solution.”

In an email to Research Money, Sorenson said he has now heard from the federal government. Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne's office contacted him for a discussion with Champagne.

"Providence is engaged in discussions with the Government of Canada and various Provinces about the need to have vaccine security in Canada and how Providence with its Canadian partnered companies can provide this," Sorenson said in his email. "As a company we are committed to transparency and will provide updates to Canadians at the earliest possible time, while respecting the process of the various governments completing their due diligence."


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