NRC mobilizing industry and top researchers to develop fast solutions to COVID-19 crisis

Debbie Lawes
April 1, 2020

Armed with $45 million in new federal funding, the National Research Council is tapping Canada’s vast scientific and industrial expertise to come up with rapid solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the country’s most innovative companies are responding.

In just one week, approximately 700 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have registered with the NRC offering to quickly refine and sell desperately needed products, including personal protective equipment, sanitizers and ventilators. A handful of companies with the most promising “near-market” solutions have already been selected to pitch their ideas this week.

“We are inviting them to a roundtable bidder’s market in which the companies present their concept in real-time to [NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program] Industrial Technology Advisors, as well as the regulators and government departments. At least five [companies] have been identified so far,” NRC president Iain Stewart told Research Money.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Health Canada (HC) are currently formulating challenges for the $15-million COVID-19 Challenges Procurement Program. NRC IRAP and Innovative Solutions Canada will launch calls for proposals over the next few weeks to address these challenges, fund development of solutions and buy successful products and services. Funding will be provided in two tranches: Phase 1 to develop a proof of concept, and Phase 2 to make a working prototype, which will then be sold to a federal department or agency.

Stewart says $15 million is the program’s minimum budget, “because we’re also using IRAP funding and the departments are buying so we’ll end up using procurement budgets as well”.

Innovative Solutions Canada said it will begin posting challenges to its website in the coming days.

Producing vaccines quickly for clinical trials

The procurement program is one of three new NRC-led initiatives aimed at quickly mobilizing the country’s innovative capacity.

The NRC also received $15 million to upgrade and expand the capacity of its Human Health Therapeutics lab in Montreal to accelerate clinical trials and the eventual production of a vaccine and treatments. The lab will be certified for Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) quality assurance to ensure that vaccines are consistently produced and controlled — a prerequisite for industrial production and large-scale, Phase 3 human clinical trials.

By June the lab will be ready to start monthly production of 100,000 vaccine candidate doses, including protein-based, viral vector-based, and antibody-based products.

“Companies can bring their vaccine candidates and we’ll work with them to scale it up,” says Stewart.

In an emergency, the lab could produce vaccines for doctors, nurses and other emergency personnel, he adds. “If there was no other capacity in the country, there would be 100,000 doses available [monthly] for first responders. We could go through a hierarchy of needs." The current plan is to provide vaccines this year for clinical trials in Canada.

Globally, there are currently two vaccines candidates in Phase 1 clinical trials, according to the World Health Organization, with another 42 vaccines at the pre-clinical stage.

Supporting new pandemic research teams

An additional $15 million will go to support teams of academic, private sector, NRC and other government researchers to address a range of medium-term needs of PHAC and HC. The Pandemic Response Challenge Program is structured around three themes: rapid detection and diagnosis, therapeutics and vaccine development, and digital health.

The NRC’s existing challenge programs are usually seven years long. The new pandemic response program will be looking for results in just two years. Challenges are currently in development and will be posted in April. One of the first could be for a low-cost diagnostic technology that can rapidly test suspected COVID-19 cases.

“There’s a strong possibility that even if COVID-19 goes away, it will come back,” says Stewart. “If you look at the cycle of past pandemics and infectious diseases they come in waves quite often, so we want to be prepared.”

Beyond the three new programs, Stewart says the NRC will continue to respond to external requests for expertise and assistance. For example, Claude Larose, a business advisor with the NRC’s Medical Devices Research Centre in Montreal, is working with Nobel laureate Dr. Art McDonald, Dr. Jonathan Bagger, director of the TRIUMF particle physics lab in British Columbia, and Dr. Nigel Lockyer, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Illinois, along with research colleagues in Italy, to develop an inexpensive and easily reproducible ventilator.

“We have set up a business line that is just responding to people seeking advice,” says Stewart.


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