Federal government invests $200 million to build an mRNA vaccine plant in Ontario

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A staff member sets up an antibody production line at the Ibex building of Lonza, where the Moderna mRNA (COVID-19 vaccine is produced, in Visp, Switzerland, on Sept. 29, 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters - image credit)
A staff member sets up an antibody production line at the Ibex building of Lonza, where the Moderna mRNA (COVID-19 vaccine is produced, in Visp, Switzerland, on Sept. 29, 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters - image credit)

The federal government today announced a $200-million investment to help a Mississauga, Ont.-based company build a plant that can churn out millions of mRNA vaccines.

Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the money will be used to expand an existing site owned by Resilience Biotechnologies Inc. to provide "made-in-Canada solutions such as vaccines and treatments for future pandemics."

The funds will expand Resilience's manufacturing and fill-finish capacity for a number of vaccines and therapeutics, including mRNA shots like the ones now being used to fight COVID-19, Champagne said.

The government says the plant expansion will create 500 permanent jobs and 50 co-op placements for students once construction is complete in 2024.

The addition of some 55,000 square feet of factory space will allow Resilience to manufacture between 112 million and 640 million doses of mRNA product each year. The goal is to leave Canada less dependent on foreign vaccine makers when the next pandemic hits.

WATCH | Trudeau, Champagne announce funding to build mRNA vaccine plant in Ontario:

Resilience is a contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO), which means it assembles products developed by other companies.

It's standard for big pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca, Merck and Pfizer to outsource the actual drug manufacturing process to third parties. Some companies have sold their manufacturing sites to focus on research and development. A Novartis-owned plant in Boucherville, Que. was sold to Avara, a contract manufacturing operation, in 2018.

There isn't currently a CDMO in Canada that is capable of producing a supply of vaccines sufficient to meet national and international demands.

In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics, Champagne said the federal investment is designed to reverse "four decades of decline" in the country's biomanufacturing sector.

Once at the forefront of global vaccine development, Canada's life sciences sector has been hollowed out after years of paltry investments by both governments and the private sector.

Champagne said Canada had trouble luring any of the big vaccine players to Canada in the early days of this pandemic because there was so little fill-and-finish capacity available here to mass produce shots. (Finish-and-fill refers to the process of filling vials with vaccine and finishing the process of packaging the product for distribution.)

"I would say this is a game-changer because with that, we will be able to support a number of vaccine candidates," Champagne said. "We've been looking around to bring everything back to Canada."

Quebec-based Medicago reports promising early clinical trial results

Canada has been entirely dependent on foreign sources for shots throughout this COVID-19 crisis. As a result, Canada has had to contend with the threat of export controls and vaccine nationalism, which made for a turbulent first few months of the vaccination campaign.

Based on recommendations from the COVID-19 vaccine task force — an independent body of industry experts assembled to advise Ottawa on procurement — the federal government signed deals AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Sanofi, and the one Canadian company, the Quebec City-based Medicago.

Last fall, the federal government floated $173 million to help Medicago develop its COVID-19 vaccine and build a large plant to produce it.

On Tuesday, Medicago, which is developing the product in combination with GSK, reported positive early clinical trial data on its plant-derived COVID-19 vaccine, which is different than the mRNA shots offered by Pfizer and Moderna or viral vector vaccines from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

"After two doses, the adjuvanted vaccine candidate induced robust neutralizing antibody and cellular immune responses in all subjects, irrespectively of age," Nathalie Landry, the executive vice-president of scientific and medical affairs at Medicago, said in a statement.

Medicago
Medicago

"These results give us confidence as we continue to move forward with our phase three clinical trial. We hope to add another tool in the global fight against COVID-19, particularly as cross-protection emerges as an important consideration in vaccination efforts worldwide," she said, referring to the concept of mixing two different vaccine products.

In addition to the Resilience funding pledge today and the Medicago commitment, the federal government has already promised some $455 million for a major expansion of Sanofi's Toronto plant, which will primarily produce flu shots but it can also be retooled to produce vaccines for coronaviruses.

Once operational, Sanofi will be able to manufacture enough influenza vaccines for all Canadians each year at its Toronto facility.

Oliver Walters/CBC
Oliver Walters/CBC

One Canadian company behind a promising COVID-19 mRNA shot, Calgary-based Providence Therapeutics, has been vocal in its criticism of the federal funding policy.

In an interview with CBC News last month, the company's CEO, Brad Sorenson, threatened to pull out of Canada after repeated requests for government assistance to get its product into development went unanswered. Sorenson has said his product would have been further along had Ottawa come through money in the early days of the pandemic.

Speaking on Tuesday, Champagne said he spoke recently to Sorenson and committed more federal support for Providence once its product clears the next phase of clinical trials.

"This is not about the minister picking winners. It's about the science telling us what's the most promising product," Champagne said. "If you come with good results, we can support you. They're in very, very early stages of trying to find vaccines."

Beyond the new money for future vaccine plants, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that Canada will receive nine million more mRNA shots from Pfizer in July.

That means the New York-based pharmaceutical company will be sending two million vaccine doses to Canada each week for the foreseeable future. Based on those figures, another nine million shots will be delivered in August and September. Canada has ordered a total of 48 million doses from Pfizer, enough to fully vaccinate 24 million people with two shots.

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