This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)

Canada can make vaccines, just not the ones leading the COVID-19 race

Canada has spent more than $1 billion to pre-order seven different developing COVID-19 vaccines

The head of a Canadian biotech industry association says Canada can and does make vaccines — just not the ones expected first to help stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a firestorm Tuesday when he said Canadians will have to wait a bit to get vaccinated for COVID-19 because the first doses off the production lines will be used in the countries where they are made.

So while vaccinations might start next month in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, it will be January at the earliest before any doses are injected in this country.

Canada, said Trudeau, “no longer has any domestic production capacity for vaccines” and it makes sense that the countries that do will prioritize their own citizens.

Andrew Casey, the CEO of BioteCanada, told The Canadian Press Wednesday that Canada does produce vaccines but the technology for the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates is so new, the manufacturing capacity is being built alongside the vaccines themselves.

“This is the first time the technology has actually been applied,” he said. “So you have to then build the facility to manufacture at scale, which is a challenge.”

While pharmaceutical company Sanofi has a vaccine plant in Toronto and GlaxoSmithKline has one in Quebec, both make protein-based vaccines, such as the more familiar ones Canadians get every year for the flu.

Canada has spent more than $1 billion to pre-order seven different developing COVID-19 vaccines, and only one being developed jointly by Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline uses the protein technology.

The first two vaccines expected on the market, from Pfizer and Moderna, each use genetic material known as messenger ribonucleic acid or mRNA. A third with promising trial results, from AstraZeneca, uses a modified common-cold virus that normally infects chimpanzees. Each type trains the human body to develop antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Casey said a protein-vaccine maker can’t just start making the bioengineered vaccines.

“One is like making wine, one’s like making Coke,” he said. “Yes, they both grow in bottles. Yes, you can drink both out of a glass. But the manufacturing processes used for the two is so completely different. You can’t just say well, we’ll shut down the protein one, and we’ll switch over to the mRNA.”

READ MORE: Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner demanded in question period Wednesday that the government explain whether Canada had even tried to convince the companies to make their products here.

Trudeau didn’t answer, but if those negotiations happened, they have not been successful.

Pfizer is expanding production facilities in Kalamazoo, Mich. and Puurs, Belgium to produce most of its vaccine. The company has said it is open to others manufacturing it, but that the technology is difficult to transfer.

Moderna has a 10-year exclusive agreement with Swiss-based Lonza Group AC to make its vaccine, mainly in facilities in New Hampshire and Switzerland. Lonza chairman Albert Baehny said earlier this month the new technology meant Lonza had to remake its production lines “from scratch.”

AstraZeneca, which has promised three billion doses of its vaccine, has signed contract deals with at least two dozen manufacturers around the world to produce its vaccine but not in Canada.

A spokesman for Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the biomanufacturing sector has been declining in Canada since the mid-1980s.

“When this pandemic began Canada had no flexible, large-scale, bio-manufacturing capacity suitable for a COVID-19 vaccine,” said John Power.

He said Canada has been working with experts to address the issue and has made investments, including $140 million in a new National Research Council plant in Montreal.

The NRC said Wednesday the Biologics Manufacturing Centre will be finished next July. It doesn’t have an agreement yet to produce a specific vaccine, but is being built so it can produce several biologic vaccines, including of the type being made by AstraZeneca. It will not be able to make mRNA vaccines like those from Moderna or Pfizer.

It is supposed to be able to produce two million doses a month before the end of 2021.

A spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline told The Canadian Press the company’s Ste-Foy, Que., plant will be part of production of the GSK vaccine eventually but timelines and specifics aren’t yet available.

A Canadian-made vaccine from Quebec-based Medicago is also expected to be in production in Canada next year.

Medicago CEO Bruce Clark said the company has been able to adapt a vaccine for influenza to target COVID-19 instead, noting such an adaptation is one of the advantages of biologic vaccines. But Clark said one of the disadvantages is that it’s harder to transfer the technology of biologics to be made in other places.

Medicago has facilities in Quebec and North Carolina and is building a new one in Quebec. The existing ones can make about 50 million doses by the end of next year, while the new plant will be able to do as many as a billion annually.

The company has been talking to the federal government for years to get funding for a “full-scale manufacturing facility,” he said.

“We were not successful,” said Clark. “It’s really only been in the context of the pandemic that we’ve seen funds be freed up to commit to capacity in Canada.”

Last month Ottawa agreed to provide $173 million to Medicago for research on its vaccine and construction of an expanded facility. Clark said the 2023 completion date for the new plant could be bumped up with more money.

None of the vaccines in question have finished clinical trials and all must also be approved by Health Canada before they can be used here.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirusvaccines

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta identifies 573 new COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths on Saturday

There are currently 9,727 active cases of the virus in the province

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Three new COVID-19 deaths in Central zone, Alberta under 10,000 active cases

The Central zone sits at 849 active cases, with 52 people in hospital and 10 in the ICU.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced 16 additional deaths Thursday. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
No easing of Alberta’s COVID-19 measures Thursday, 678 new COVID-19 cases

The province also hit 1,500 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic

Dean Olsen Missing Poster
Blackfalds RCMP seek public assistance to locate missing male

Dean Olsen was last seen on Jan. 20 in Red Deer County

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the Canadian government should consider sanctions on the U.S. if they refuse to reconsider the decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Keystone XL officially cancelled, Kenney vows to fight on

U.S. President Joe Biden cancelled the presidential permit for the pipeline on first day of office

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton, Friday, March 20, 2020. Hinshaw says residents in long-term care and supportive living facilities will remain the priority as the province grapples with a looming slowdown in COVID-19 vaccine supply. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta long-term care residents remain priority in looming slowdown of COVID vaccine

There are 119 patients in intensive care and 1,463 people have died

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2017, file photo, Larry King attends the 45th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton, in New York. Former CNN talk show host King has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a week, the news channel reported Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. CNN reported the 87-year-old King contracted the coronavirus and was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Larry King, broadcasting giant for half-century, dies at 87

King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews

Black Press File Photo
Maskwacis RCMP lay charges for attempted murder, kidnapping, and flight from police

Female victim remains in hospital in serious condition.

In this Dec. 18, 2020 photo, pipes to be used for the Keystone XL pipeline are stored in a field near Dorchester, Neb.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris Machian /Omaha World-Herald via AP
‘Gut punch’: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney blasts Biden on revoked Keystone XL permit

Kenney said he was upset the U.S. wouldn’t consult with Canada first before acting

Joe Biden, then the U.S. vice-president, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take their seats at the start of the First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders meeting in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau, Biden to talk today as death of Keystone XL reverberates in Canada

President Joe Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama

Prince Edward Island’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. A lozenge plant in Prince Edward Island has laid off 30 workers, citing an “almost non-existent” cold and cough season amid COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Almost non-existent’ cold and cough season: P.E.I. lozenge plant lays off 30 workers

The apparent drop in winter colds across the country seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural remedies

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Calgary flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

Most Read