Canada likely won’t be able to manufacture its own coronavirus vaccines before the end of the year, Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said on Tuesday, meaning Canada’s homegrown vaccine doses won’t be ready during the government’s current vaccination timeline.
But that doesn’t mean the deployment of a new COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing facility will be too little, too late, experts say.
“It’s not going to help us now,” said Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch. “It’s going to help us in the future.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Tuesday that the government has secured a tentative deal with U.S. vaccine-maker Novavax. That deal would allow the National Research Council-owned Royalmount facility in Montreal to produce the Novavax vaccine – once it gets approved for use in Canada.
With the Montreal facility still under construction and the Novavax vaccine still at least two months away from Health Canada approval, the doses likely won’t start being pumped out until Canada has already vaccinated every citizen who wants a jab, Champagne said on Tuesday.
Champagne said the government expects the new vaccine manufacturing plant to be fully built “by the end of the summer.”
He added that Health Canada will also need to certify the new plant, a process that takes a “few months” after construction is completed. Only then will Canada eventually start seeing the fruit of Tuesday’s announcement of a deal to produce the Novavax coronavirus vaccine within Canadian borders.
“We expect by the end of the year to be in a position to be producing vaccines. And we’re talking around two million doses a month, based on the process and the design that we have seen so far,” Champagne said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly assured Canadians that there will be a vaccine available for every Canadian who wants one by September – despite vaccine delivery delays and indications of rising vaccine nationalism.
If Trudeau’s timeline is right, that means this facility won’t be pumping out vaccines until after every Canadian has already accessed one.
Still, Bogoch says the announcement is still very good news.
“It’s never too late to invest in Canadian industry to produce vaccines. It’s never too late to do that. I mean, we need this,” Bogoch said.
A major hurdle Canada has faced in its vaccine rollout is the fact that there’s no capacity to produce mRNA-based vaccines in the country. The two vaccines approved to date, from Pfizer and Moderna, are mRNA-based – which means all of Canada’s shipments have been dependent on other countries allowing the doses to flow from their facilities and into Canadian borders.
In addition to this, Canada imports about 85 per cent of its vaccines in a normal year – a huge shift from the 1970s, when Canada manufactured the vast majority of its own vaccines.
That reality has Bogoch celebrating this latest announcement as a “big win.”
Bogoch said that while this facility isn’t likely to help with the initial vaccine rollout, it will help with any booster shots that are needed to keep Canadians inoculated against the virus – as he said the virus “isn’t going away anytime soon.”
“This is not going to help us in March, April, May,” Bogoch said. But, he added, “we’ll probably need boosters or an updated vaccine to keep up with the changing virus, similar to what happens with influenza.”
It’s a message that was echoed by Andrew Casey, president and CEO of BIOTECanada, which represents Canada’s biotech industry.
While the jury is still out on whether the existing vaccines will need an eventual booster shot in order to maintain the protections they offer against the virus, Health Canada has said that the early research into this area does indicate that a top-up will likely eventually needed – making the infrastructure to eventually produce those jabs important for keeping COVID-19 at bay.
Bogoch said having facilities in Canada also makes responding to new strains of the virus easier.
“If the time came where we needed a modified version of the vaccine, it looks like we could do so and mass produce it here for Canadians. This is a big deal and a big win,” Bogoch said.
The push to shore up Canada’s ability to produce homegrown vaccines is also important when faced with the inevitable reality that another pandemic will eventually explode again around the world, Bogoch said.
“It’s awful to think about when we’re neck-deep in a pandemic, especially in the second wave of a pandemic. But this is going to happen again. We’ve got to be prepared,” he said.
Casey compared it to training for the Olympics.
“What do you do in between the Olympics?” Casey asked. “You continue to train. How do you do that? In this space…you have to make sure that that facility continues to run and is continually sort of up to snuff in terms of its technologies.”
Speaking on the front steps of Rideau Cottage on Tuesday, Trudeau said the announcement is aimed at doing exactly that.
“We need to restore our capacity in our pharmaceutical industry in Canada to supply vaccines to Canadians, whether it’s for further waves of this virus or if it’s for future viruses,” Trudeau said.
“Canada has made a commitment to ensure that we have both the scientific and the production capacity to meet the needs of Canadians regardless of what the future is.”
— With files from The Canadian Press