After a year of living with COVID-19, Postmedia is taking an in-depth look at the significant social, institutional and economic issues the pandemic has brought to light in Canada — and more importantly, how we can finally begin to solve them. You can find our complete coverage here.
Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out has been bumpy from the start. The approach has seen disruptions in receiving doses from international producers and slow delivery to provinces, leaving many Canadians upset as they watch people in other countries get inoculated quicker.
Shortly after the pandemic was declared, the government invested hundreds of millions of dollars in potential vaccine candidates.
Despite that funding, Canadian manufacturers and producers still have not created a single approved vaccine and, as of early March, Canada ranked 44th in the world in doses administered per 100 people, according to Bloomberg News. Several experts in the field say those funds were too little too late to advance Canadian-made vaccines through the application process in a timely manner and are urging the federal government to step up its commitment to the biomedical industry.
A streamlined vaccination process
The first two vaccines to be approved for mass production and distribution were created by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Prior to the pandemic, both manufacturers were researching similar products and were able to quickly transition to fight COVID-19, says Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta..
Previous research done on the MERS and SARS viruses put researchers in a good position to deal with the current pandemic. The companies had been researching messenger RNA vaccines, a type of vaccination that trains the body to create a protein to fight a virus rather than using a weakened or inactive form of the virus.
“So basically, the whole delivery system had already been worked out and tested in animals and some humans. But for both of those diseases, there had been no further large epidemics to do the Phase two studies of these vaccines,” said Saxinger. “They basically, almost like swapped, out the cassette in terms of the genetic material, using the source code to sequence and started working on that.”
Once the focus shifted to COVID-19, the entire process of approving vaccines was streamlined. Producers usually have long gaps between the various steps of the approval process, sometimes taking years just to clear red tape. However, those intervals were tightened as COVID-19 spread around the world.
“The last thing that makes a huge difference is the fact that we’re in a pandemic with a very high attack rate,” said Saxinger. “So the fact that, you know, flaring pandemics meant that they were able to recruit thousands and thousands and thousands of patients in months and so, you know, the Pfizer and Moderna trials each had kind of 30,000 plus patients, or participants enrolled in them.”
Four vaccines have been approved by Health Canada, one year after the pandemic began. By comparison, most vaccines typically take five to 10 years to get rubberstamped.
However, none of the approved products have come out of Canada. They are being produced in the United States and Europe.
Canada vs. the world
A decade ago, BIOTECanada’s vaccine industry committee told the government to prepare for a pandemic, said Andrew Casey, president of the national industry association group. Still, governments of all stripes did not invest heavily into the biotech industry.
“Now, we’re sitting here going, ‘whoa, we should have done more.’ Okay. But imagine a government came out five years ago said we’re gonna spend a billion dollars on mRNA manufacturing, because it might be useful. Here we go, like, ‘are you crazy?'” said Casey.
Without any large vaccine-producing conglomerates based in Canada, Ottawa brokered deals to procure hundreds of millions of vaccine doses from seven companies. So far, the Moderna and AstraZeneca formulas as well as products from Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson have been approved.
The United Kingdom and the United States, on the other hand, had the capacity and infrastructure in place to facilitate large vaccination partnerships – such as Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech – and were therefore well-positioned to invest in and produce vaccines domestically as they were approved. Both countries are well ahead of Canada in their vaccination progress.
The U.K. has poured money into vaccination projects, including $115 million towards the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine partnership last May.
Meanwhile, the United States provided a $1.95-billion for Pfizer-BioNTechto produce its vaccine by the end of 2020. It also recently announced funding to help each of the 50 states get jabs into American arms.
Canada’s approach, however, was to make investments into various producers inside and outside the country. François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s Innovation, Science and Industry Minister, said his government invested millions into domestic candidates while gambling on procuring international vaccinations – including those in the U.K. and United States.
“You have to remember when this started I think there was something like 234 vaccine candidates in the world. We picked seven of the most promising thanks to the advice that we had from the vaccine task force,” said Champagne.
On top of the ones approved, the government has deals with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, Medicago and Novavax. The Medicago and Novavax vaccines are set to be produced in Canada once they are approved, potentially later this year. The government has spent more than $1 billion in procuring vaccines.
Acknowledging there has been criticism around his government’s vaccine rollout, Champagne said he believes Canada is turning a corner in the pandemic now that there is a steady supply of doses coming into the country.
“I think Canadians will have a very different perspective on all that six months from now,” said Champagne.
Champagne noted his government announced hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the biotech industry since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
But Saxinger says Canada was in a disadvantageous position from the start due to a lack of funding and investment into the sector before the pandemic.
“No one was in that kind of large scale production, rapid research program capability mode,” said Saxinger. “I don’t think that you could have put enough money into it at the beginning and had a result at the end of the year, like, I just don’t think it would have been possible, because the starting point was too far off.”
Canada’s Biotech industry beyond COVID-19
Dr. Michael Houghton, the director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Applied Virology at the University of Alberta and Canada’s newest Nobel Prize winner, has been working on a vaccine for the past year. His team initially received a small grant from the National Institute of Health and later applied for a $4.4 million federal grant, which was denied.
“I think the reason it was turned down, we have four reviewers, but one of them said our timelines were too slow. Well, you know, fair enough, but it does take a long time to do it properly. You know, if we had got that grant, we almost certainly would be in phase one clinical trials right now,” said Houghton.
“I’ve worked in England, I’ve worked in the United States, and now I’m in Canada and I’ve seen how successful biotech can be in the U.K. And in the U.S. It’s a trillion dollar industry, employing millions and millions of people,” said Houghton.
The Alberta government has invested $20 million in the Li Ka Shing Institute over the next four years to speed up their COVID-19 vaccine as well as other communicable diseases. The province earmarked a total of $698 million for population and public health initiatives in its February budget.
“If we can get at least one of our vaccines or drugs to show efficacy in humans, then that’s it, we’ve got that very valuable asset that we can then commercialize (and) employ Albertans,” said Houghton. “Having a manufacturing plant to be able to deliver product in Alberta, for the whole world, (would) be really good for commercialization and stimulating an alternate sector, which is the biotech sector.”
He said his team is putting together a proposal for the federal government to match the $20-million commitment from the province.
For their part, Canada has invested in several vaccine production facilities since the pandemic began, including the National Research Council of Canada’s Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montreal and the Vancouver-based Precision NanoSystems Incorporated. Precision NanoSystems is expected to complete their expansion in 2023.
Champagne said he expects the Novovax vaccine to be produced in Montreal by the end of 2021.
“It’s really trying to look, what can we do domestically to support those who have a vaccine candidate, those which are more advanced we have invested on a clinical trial, and manufacturing facility,” said Champagne.
Houghton said those were good investments, adding there will continue to be a need for COVID-19 vaccines in the future as well as cures to other illnesses plaguing the global population.
“Absolutely, it’s a wake up call, if God is telling everyone in the world, we’ve got to be better prepared, we’ve got to have better manufacturing facilities in Canada,” said Houghton. “In my opinion, we’ve got a double research on infectious disease in Canada.”
Dr. John Lewis, president of Entos Pharmaceuticals, agrees. Although investing in the biotech industry is expensive, with vaccines often costing hundreds of millions to get approved, he said those costs pale in comparison to what countries have spent on COVID-19.
“The federal government has spent an estimated $400 billion already in mitigating the effects of the pandemic. So I think, you know, a very modest portion of that can now be applied to investing in Canada’s innovation economy,” said Lewis.
Meanwhile, Champagne said he is working to expand the country’s biotech industry and looking to attract international investors to work with Canadian companies.
Casey at BIOTECanada said, moving forward, the government will need to partner with international manufacturers to help keep producers in Canada.
“If really what you want to do is create the ability to address next pandemic, you want the industry to be here, setting up manufacturing, investing in research,” said Casey. “That requires more of a partnership.”
For more on Alberta’s vaccine rollout, read our guide driven by reader questions.