By Eduardo Longoria
“One of the things to remember is Canada no longer has any domestic production capacity for vaccines. We used to have it decades ago, but we no longer have it.”
The meaning of this statement by Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is never more relevant than in the midst of a global pandemic. This statement was made last month in reference to Canada’s need for COVID-19 vaccines and plans to provide for the Canadian population as well as commit to building the nation’s manufacturing capabilities.
Canadian COVID Situation
The Canadian government has placed far more orders per capita than any other country. However, this fact, while reassuring, does quite a bit to highlight the nation’s problem. Despite Canada’s University and startup system, the country still requires importation for most of its biomanufacturing needs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists 202 vaccine candidates, 47 of which are in human trials and 7 of which Canada has contracts to receive from manufacturers for a total of $1 billion. However, out of those 7 contracts, only one of them (Medicago) is actually Canadian. Importations wouldn’t be a cause for concern during normal times, but companies would prioritize their home nation first during a global emergency.
Canada has guarantees for 414 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, AstraZeneca, and Medicago.
Along with the sheer number of doses, Canada has been sure to diversify the types of vaccines that it is getting. While Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna are producing mRNA vaccines, the other six companies are working with vaccines based on DNA and protein subunits, etc. Hopefully, this diversity will provide a greater likelihood of success and offer alternatives for a country with a sizeable population.
Plans to ReBuild
After realizing its situation, Canada has begun efforts to rebuild its manufacturing sector. Last August, the Canadian government announced that it contributed $120 million over two years to build its biomanufacturing facility in Montreal, including the National Research Council.
“We’ve begun to invest once again in ensuring that Canada will have domestic vaccine production capacity because we never want to be caught short again, without the ability to support Canadians directly,” said Justin Trudeau.
Ottawa previously committed $23 million to Saskatoon’s VIDO-InterVac operations in March and pledged $175 million to Vancouver-based AbCellera Biologics in May to boost its research and production capabilities.
While Canada is not developing its own vaccine, it is supporting the production of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 through the Pandemic Response Challenge Program (PRCP) and the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP). The project collaborates with Zymeworks Inc. and ImmunoPrecise Antibodies Ltd for the design and development of antibody candidates. ImmunoPrecise has managed to identify antibodies that are directed against the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike protein by screening tens of thousands of antibodies from multiple sources.
While Canada does have a strong start-up scene and increasingly so in health and biotechnology, some experts in Canada believe that this is insufficient to build domestic production.
Ty Shattuck, CEO of McMaster Innovation Park, was quoted as saying
“Startups don’t create value, they consume value, you can’t be all-startups any more than you can have a school with all kindergarteners. You’ve got to have graduates that eventually grow up and do the hard work and create value. And, frankly, we don’t have that yet.”
McMaster’s innovation park was built by McMaster’s university as part of a partnership with the government of Ontario. MIP’s advantage is that it caters to aspiring manufacturers by offering the infrastructure needed to get to the next level. It currently controls about 700,000 square feet of real estate and plans to grow to 2.8 million.
Canada tends to fail mid-tier companies that are trying to grow into giants. The nation’s lending environment is often wary of lending for specialized industrial space, and politicians find it easier to back dorm room startups rather than taking the more substantial risk on companies looking to scale. As a result, much of Canada’s talent find it worthwhile to take a trip to Boston, where capital is more available and industrial space more abundant. As of 2018, Massachusetts had 2.6 billion dollars of venture capital funding as opposed to the 3.2 billion Canadian dollars for the entire nation of Canada.
While the Canadian government is taking a greater interest in its biomanufacturing sector, it will likely take some years to build up. Until then, the nation will depend on foreign vaccines like the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccine that were approved recently by Health Canada via interim order. The reason is not just because of lower spending but the lower levels of corporate involvement in VC funding as well as the average of two extra years that Canadian companies have to bootstrap before they receive VC funding. If Canadian corporate culture is unable to compel firms to invest in later-stage companies, then the problem of Canadian bio manufacturers not scaling will last until the government of Canada can fill the funding gap.
By Eduardo Longoria
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- Health Canada Authorizes Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine in Canada
- ImmunoPrecise begins preclinical manufacturing of lead antibodies targeting SARS-CoV-2 – Canadian Manufacturing