The Canadian government is making moves to strengthen Canada’s vaccine manufacturing capacity — but it won’t happen anytime soon.
The $415 million in federal funding, announced Wednesday, will go towards helping Sanofi build a new vaccine production facility in Toronto, which would eventually have the tools to produce, fill-and-finish, and inspect vaccines on a large scale.
Sanofi, which already has a manufacturing location in North York, Ont., will also receive $55 million from the Ontario government. The company itself will provide more than $455 million to create and maintain 1,225 jobs, and invest at least $79 million a year to fund Canadian research and development.
Influenza vaccines will be the main product produced at the new Toronto facility.
The government says, once completed, the plant will have the capacity to produce enough vaccine doses to “support the entire Canadian population within approximately six months” of a global influenza-strain pandemic being declared.
As it’s not expected to be completed until 2027, the project is being touted as an important addition to Canada’s future pandemic preparedness.
“If there’s one lesson learned from the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is that we need to have a strong Canadian biomanufacturing sector, so that when the next pandemic hits — whatever it might be — we will be prepared as a nation,” said François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry.
Canada’s lack of domestic vaccine production capacity has come under heavy criticism over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without a home-grown vaccine maker, Canada has hit multiple hurdles in its vaccine rollout.
The Canadian government has maintained that Canada remains on track with its vaccination timeline but is falling behind globally, especially when compared to countries like the U.S., Israel, and the U.K.
The bulk of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccines are being manufactured and shipped from Europe. Some are coming from the U.S. and India as well.
The dynamic has, at times, put Canada at the mercy of political stressors amid a global race for shots. The European Union has dangled the threat of export controls over its home-grown vaccines, in order to vaccinate its citizens first and faster. Canada has insisted no such measures would impact the arrival of its contracted doses.
Champagne made it clear that Wednesday’s announcement is for the “long term.”
“We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but one thing we have learned at all levels of government, and what Canadians expect us to do, is to be more resilient,” he said.
“The fact we can attract this investment to increase the resiliency of our country when it comes to vaccines — in this case, influenza — but should there be a need, there will be more fill-and-finish capacity in Canada which is one of the gaps we identified from the get-go… Sanofi will be able to provide that.”
The investment does not include an actual contract for Sanofi to produce vaccines for Canada at this time, but Champagne said negotiations are taking place. He said the size of the investment doesn’t mean the facility will be built overnight, that it’ll take time before all the pieces come together.
In a normal year, Canada imports about 85 per cent of its vaccines – a huge shift from the 1970s, when Canada manufactured the vast majority of its own vaccines.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged in the past that Canada needs to do more to boost its biomanufacturing sector. Back in February, the government announced a tentative deal with U.S. vaccine-maker Novavax that would allow a Montreal-based facility to produce the vaccine, once it gets approved for use in Canada.
That facility is still under construction and likely months away from being ready and approved to pump out vaccines.
Champagne added that the Sanofi investment will also create more jobs in Canada.
“This is not only about biomanufacturing,” he said, “this is about rebuilding a very core sector of our economy.
Sanofi has dipped into COVID-19 vaccines as well, specifically the highly-effective mRNA-based vaccines.
Earlier this year the company agreed to fill and pack millions of doses of vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson — both of which have been approved for use in Canada.
Last month, the company joined GlaxoSmithKline to launch a new clinical trial of a protein-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which was hit by a delay late last year.
It has also launched a separate human trial of an mRNA vaccine candidate with Translate Bio.
— with files from Reuters and Global News’ Rachel Gilmore