Saskatoon city councillors vote to support proposed $65M vaccine lab expansion

·2 min read
Researchers work on a COVID-19 vaccine at Saskatoon’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) lab.
Researchers work on a COVID-19 vaccine at Saskatoon’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) lab.

(Bonnie Allen/CBC - image credit)

City councillors in Saskatoon have voted to support a multi-million dollar project that would greatly expand work being done by the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan.

At council's governance and priorities committee meeting Tuesday, councillors voted unanimously in support of the Canadian Centre for Pandemic Research, a proposed $65-million site that would allow scientists to access even more resources in creating new vaccines and studying viruses that put animals and humans at risk.

"As we look at the need to continue to diversify our economy and ensure that we're creating jobs for the future, and opportunities for the future, this facility could create a cluster of activity around something that the world knows we need," said Mayor Charlie Clark.

The motion committed up to $250,000 in city funds toward the project, contingent on support from the provincial and federal government.

VIDO associate director Paul Hodgson told councillors that pressure to build Canada's domestic vaccine creation capacity is very high right now. He estimated that if this facility was in place, VIDO's homegrown vaccine could have begun testing six months ago and would have been on a similar timeline with the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines.

"If you look at similar facilities from around the world, the ones that were the front movers had what we refer to as vertically-integrated facilities," said Hodgson.

"These facilities all have discovery research all the way up to manufacturing."

City administration noted that there is precedent for council spending money on large-scale research projects, such as the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron and a prior expansion of VIDO's International Vaccine Centre.

Clark said he had spoken to Premier Scott Moe, as well as special representative to the Prairies MP Jim Carr and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, about the potential of the project.

He said it was important that the city show support for the project as soon as possible.

"There is some competition for this project," said Clark.

"It's not a given that this $65-million project comes to Saskatoon. I think we're in a very strong position, but we want to make sure we win this bid."

Peter Stoicheff, president of the University of Saskatchewan, said there was stiff competition from both Laval, Que., and Winnipeg for the project, but that the university's agricultural background gives the project some advantages.

"My understanding is that 85 to 90 per cent of the viruses that the world faces and will continue to face are zoonotic, that they start with animals," he said.

Saskatoon's chief financial officer said he would be writing up a financial report outlining the city's financial contribution, as well as its timeline.

It's likely the city's $250,000 share would be included in the 2022-23 city budget.