Ottawa makes major investment in vaccine manufacturing; Nobel laureate calls for national manufacturing plan

Debbie Lawes
October 28, 2020

As the number of COVID-19 cases reaches record highs across the country, the federal government has taken its biggest step yet to ensure Canada has the capacity to manufacture a homegrown vaccine for a virus that has killed more than 10,000 Canadians.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced October 23 that Medicago would receive up to $173 million through the Strategic Innovation Fund to support its ongoing vaccine development and clinical trials, as well as the construction of a vaccine manufacturing facility in Quebec City. Medicago began Phase 1 testing of its recombinant plant-based vaccine with human volunteers in July and plans to start Phase 2 trials in early November and Phase 3 trials in December.

A separate agreement with Public Services and Procurement Canada will see Medicago supply up to 76 million doses of its vaccine, enough to vaccinate 38 million people. The company expects to be able to manufacture about 100 million doses of its vaccine by the end of 2021.

Medicago’s Quebec City plant is on track to open by the end of 2023, at which time the company says it will have the capacity to produce up to one billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine annually.

A lack of domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity is a major gap in Canada’s pandemic preparedness, both in producing enough doses for clinical trials and for country-wide inoculation. Nobel laureate Dr. Michael Houghton raised the concern in a recent interview with Research Money’s acting editor Debbie Lawes. Houghton, who recently won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in discovering the hepatitis C virus, said Canada’s inability to manufacture at scale delayed his team’s efforts to produce a hepatitis vaccine for clinical trials. That lack of capacity is now hindering plans to produce a new vaccine to combat COVID-19.

Houghton is calling for the development of a national vaccine manufacturing plan that would see Canada attract a big pharma manufacturer or scale-up domestic companies, such as Vancouver-based Precision Nanosystems, Inc. (PNI), which currently manufacture at a smaller scale.

“We cannot be dependent on other countries when such a large-scale pandemic is underway,” he said. “Knocking out 30 million vaccines for the Canadian population is no trivial matter, and the number could be much higher. We might need two or three doses so that’s about 100 million doses we would need. To do that needs a lot of planning and quite a bit of investment.”

Earlier this year Houghton and University of Alberta colleague Dr. Lorne Tyrell received $750,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Alberta Innovates to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. But he did not receive the additional money they requested to manufacture the vaccine.

“I put in a second grant to CIHR for manufacturing and for QA/QC (quality assurance/quality control) and for clinical testing, for around $4 million. They rejected it because the reviewers thought it was too slow,” said Houghton, adding that academia cannot be expected to work on the same timelines as big pharma. “That’s why we need a manufacturing pharmaceutical industry in Canada. Then you can quickly give them your methods and have them scale it up for you.”

Houghton said he is continuing his quest to secure funding to manufacture the vaccine for human trials early next year. “Without the funding required to actually make a vaccine for COVID and get it in testing in people, I’m limited in what I can do.”

Trudeau’s October 23 announcement also included $18.2 million in SIF money for PNI which is developing another made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine. PNI will use the funding to advance clinical trials of its RNA vaccine candidate as far as Phase 2 testing with trials on humans expected to begin next summer.

An additional $23.2 million will be awarded through the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program to advance six COVID-19 vaccine candidates in various stages of clinical trials.

The Government of Canada has now signed agreements with Medicago, AstraZeneca, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, Pfizer, and Moderna to purchase up to 358 million doses of their different COVID-19 vaccine candidates. There are currently three vaccine candidates currently under review by Health Canada and several others in clinical trials and in development.


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