Industry minister foresees biomanufacturing revival, including vaccines — eventually

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OTTAWA — Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne sees a future for Canada as a leader in biomanufacturing, including vaccines — but not soon.

In a speech Wednesday at the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, Champagne said he hopes a COVID-19 vaccine can be produced at home in the "medium term" as a federal investment strategy begins to bear fruit.

Multiple COVID-19 vaccine-makers sought domestic partners last year to help pump out their products, but Canada's biomanufacturing industry has shrunk considerably in the last half-century.

"If we look at the level of biomanufacturing, we’re in the middle, I would say, of reversing a decline that has lasted for four decades, since the '80s," Champagne said in French.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last month that Canada has a new contract with Maryland-based Novavax to eventually churn out doses of its vaccine at a new National Research Council facility going up in Montreal. But construction won't wrap up until the summer and production will likely begin in late fall at the earliest, long after Canada expects to import enough doses to vaccinate the entire population.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said the federal government has failed to engage domestic pharmaceutical firms on potential production, displaying a lack of "political will" early on.

"It is low-hanging fruit, and baffling to me that the federal government has not reached out to companies, for example, like Providence Pharmaceuticals in Alberta to find out, ‘What can we do to help?'" Rempel Garner said at a press conference.

"Capacity to manufacture a critical product like vaccines at home is critical to securing Canada’s future."

Within a month of the World Health Organization's declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, Ottawa made $792 million available through its Strategic Innovation Fund to fuel clinical trials and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutic drugs to fight the virus.

The government spent a further $126 million to upgrade the National Research Council plant on Montreal's Royalmount Avenue.

However, several vaccine makers have said a lack of federal funding early in the pandemic kept homegrown vaccines from developing as quickly as international versions.

Canada is buying at least 238 million doses of seven different vaccines, but only one is from a Canadian company — Medicago — and, at least at first, none will be produced in Canada.

Medicago received $173 million from the strategic innovation fund in October and began Phase 3 trials last week — typically the last phase before seeking regulatory approval. It hopes to report results by the summer and get approval in time to have doses ready for arms by the fall.

"We are rebuilding the ecosystem one investment at a time," Champagne said.

Developments abroad Wednesday underscored the advantages of homegrown manufacturing, and the anxieties that trail a reliance international production pipelines.

To protect its own supplies, the European Union, a major vaccine supplier to Canada, put in place export measures to mitigate domestic supply problems amid a surge in new cases.

Trudeau played down any immediate threat to shipments expected in the coming weeks, telling the House of Commons his government would press the European Commission at the "highest levels" to ensure supplies would keep flowing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2021.

The Canadian Press