Feds invest $887 million to ensure reliable vaccine supply for COVID-19, other pandemics

Mark Lowey
April 29, 2020

An unprecedented $887-million federal investment will give Canada enough capacity to manufacture vaccines to protect every Canadian from COVID-19, as well as from future pandemics,say medical and other experts.

For Canada, this means no longer having to depend on the global vaccine-manufacturing market, in which most vaccines are mass-produced by multinational pharmaceutical companies based in the U.S. and Europe, they say.

“Manufacturing capability in Canada has been an issue and there’s been a commitment to change that,” Dr. Scott Halperin, medical director of the clinical research and vaccine challenge unit at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology’s in Halifax, told Research Money. The federal government, he says, “is scaling up vaccine manufacturing capability in Canada to make sure that Canada has a source, because we know in pandemics borders often close.”

“Countries are nationalistic in the event of an emergency,” says Paul Hodgson, associate director for business development at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan. “In the event of a shortage of something, the U.S. is going to look after its population first.”

There are large commercial-scale vaccine manufacturing facilities in Canada, such as those owned by France-based Sanofi and UK-based GSK (GlaxoSmithKline). But like similar plants in other countries, they are designed to manufacture specific vaccine product lines for global distribution.

Roy Duncan, professor and Killam Chair in Virology at Dalhousie University, says because vaccines are produced from, or contain components of living organisms, they are more difficult and expensive to manufacture than drugs with well-defined chemical formulas.

Says Hodgson: “It’s not realistic to expect a company which is a for-profit entity to have a facility that’s there (waiting) for a pandemic or emergency.” Also, it would be costly and impractical to retool commercial facilities dedicated to making specific vaccines in order to produce a new product required for a pandemic, he adds.

Instead, Ottawa is investing in a network of smaller-scale vaccine manufacturing plants and Canadian vaccine development, along with associated infrastructure, that can be adapted to make sufficient doses of whatever vaccine is required during a pandemic to supply Canada’s population.

Rapidly scaling up vaccine research and manufacturing 

The $887-million investment draws on the $1.1 billion in new funding announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on April 23, as well as the $275 million for coronavirus research and medical countermeasures announced in March. The new funding targets vaccine development, production of treatments and tracking of COVID-19, and includes:

  • $29 million (in addition to a previous $15 million) for the National Research Council of Canada to upgrade its Human Health Therapeutics facility in Montreal, to produce vaccines for clinical trials and provide infrastructure to prepare vials for individual doses as soon as a vaccine becomes available. The lab will be ready to start monthly production of 100,000 vaccine candidate doses by June;
  • $23 million for Saskatoon-based VIDO-InterVac, one of the world’s largest “containment Level 3” infectious disease research facilities, to support pre-clinical testing and clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccine candidates;
  • $600 million, through the Strategic Innovation Fund, over two years to support COVID-19 vaccine and therapy clinical trials led by the private sector, and Canadian biomanufacturing opportunities; and
  • $10.3 million over two years, and $5 million ongoing, to support the Canadian Immunization Research Network in conducting vaccine-related research and clinical trials.

In March, the federal government announced a separate $12 million for VIDO-InterVac to build a “pilot-scale” vaccine manufacturing plant, to be operational by 2022, with up to 1,000 litres of production capacity, Hodgson says. “A 1,000-litre fermenter, in an emergency situation if we were called upon, could probably produce enough vaccine to almost meet Canadian needs.” Production is expected to begin in about a year.

Unlike commercial-scale plants, VIDO-InterVac’s new facility is being designed with the greatest manufacturing flexibility possible, he notes. “We’re going to be able to use a variety of techniques for any emerging pathogen.”

Ottawa also has invested another $192 million, through the Strategic Innovation Fund’s COVID-19 stream, to help Canadian companies with large-scale projects.

This includes Quebec City-based biopharmaceutical firm Medicago, which will receive funding to support development of its plant-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate, as well as scaling up production for pandemic response. The Government of Quebec contributed $7 million to this effort.

“Together, we are rapidly scaling up our capacity in research and in manufacturing the products (including vaccines) we will need during the pandemic,” Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, said in a release.

Canada in forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development

Halperin says that the Canadian Center for Vaccinology (CCfV), a collaboration of Dalhousie University, the IWK Health Centre and the Nova Scotia Health Authority, has a large clinical trials network that will be involved in several human clinical trials when one or more vaccines become available. The World Health Organization is tracking more than 75 potential COVID-19 vaccines being developed worldwide, and at least seven of these are Canadian, he notes.

VIDO-InterVac, for example, is testing its vaccine candidate in animals and plans to start clinical trials in people by the end of this year, Hodgson says.

Edmonton-based Entos Pharmaceuticals is working with the CCfV and the Public Health Agency of Canada on designing an early-stage clinical trial with 45 people, to test Entos’ DNA vaccine candidate. This trial is expected to start within two months, Duncan says.

Entos’ “Fusogenix” vaccine uses a technology, developed by Duncan’s research group at Dalhousie, which delivers DNA encoded with a protein inside cells, enabling the body’s natural immune system to recognize and make antibodies against the virus.

Duncan says the advantages of DNA, or nucleic acid, vaccines are they’ve already been shown to be safe in animals and they can be made quickly in large quantities by small-scale manufacturing facilities.

Taken all together, Halperin says the federal investments in vaccine development and manufacturing will provide Canada with long-term capability and infrastructure, “which will be important not just for this pandemic but for future vaccines as well.”


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