New plans for Moderna to open a vaccine manufacturing facility in Canada are being welcomed by experts as a way to strengthen the country’s capacity to address future pandemics – even if it might not help directly with the current one.
The federal government announced Tuesday that it had reached a memorandum of understanding with the vaccine developer for it to build a facility in Canada to produce mRNA vaccines for a variety of diseases, capable of producing 30-million doses of vaccine per year.
“This is absolutely a step in the right direction, because this helps build out our internal capacity in Canada to make vaccines,” said Dr. Omar Khan, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.
“With an mRNA manufacturing facility in our own backyard, we will be much better equipped for the next global health crisis to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” said Francois Philippe-Champagne, minister of innovation, science and industry.
This announcement, which comes before a hotly anticipated potential election call, was short on details. Neither Champagne nor representatives from Moderna would say where the facility will be located or what exactly Canada promised Moderna, financially or otherwise, to entice it to build a factory in Canada.
Dan Breznitz, a professor and chair of innovation studies at the University of Toronto’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, says he’d like to see more details about what exactly was agreed to.
“I’m not quite so sure how much this is going to cost and who is paying for it,” he said, “Which makes me worry that we might have a vaccine production with Moderna, but it might be, you know, sometime in the future.”
Many details of the agreement between Canada and Moderna are commercially sensitive, Champagne said, because Canada is competing with other countries for Moderna facilities – and Moderna has said that they plan to build other factories around the world.
However, “Canada would come first on what comes out of that production facility,” Champagne said.
Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, also said that under the agreement, Canada would have the ability to dictate what exactly the factory made.
“The government of Canada has the right at its own discretion to call the facility to make a product that it wants,” Bancel said at the announcement. For example, he explained, the government could tell Moderna to stop producing a vaccine for flu and to focus instead on a vaccine for a newer, imminently threatening virus.
Moderna, which along with Pfizer (and BioNTech), produces mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, is hoping that the technology can be applied to a variety of other illnesses, including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and even cancer. However, the COVID-19 vaccine is its first product ever authorized for widespread use.
Moderna expects that vaccines would be produced at the facility by 2024, according to Bancel. The facility needs to be constructed and then inspected and approved by Health Canada before it can pump out vaccines. To start, he anticipates that the facility would be able to produce 30 million doses of vaccine per year, with the ability to augment that if required.
Despite the delay, many experts think that it’s a good investment.
Not only will a new vaccine facility improve Canada’s domestic capacity, said Khan, “But it also helps us contribute to their global effort to deal with pandemics, because now Canada can be part of that manufacturing solution where we make vaccines and help ship them out to the rest of the world.”
Right now, he said, vaccine manufacturing is concentrated in too few locations and spreading it out more globally will help avoid bottlenecks if there are problems at individual facilities.
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Canada has also been lagging behind in vaccine research, said Dr. Barry Pakes, director of public health and preventive medicine at the School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “This is part of a longer-term attempt to remedy that.”
This is the second major deal Ottawa has made to get mRNA vaccines made in Canada in the last three months.
In May, Champagne said Ottawa would provide $199 million to Resilience Technologies in Mississauga, Ont. The federal government has also promised $126 million for a new National Research Council to build a biologics production plant in Montreal, slated to produce a vaccine for Novavax, a subunit protein vaccine.
These investments are “better late than never,” Pakes said. “There’s no question that it’s important that we invest in it now. It would have been more important to do that 20 years ago, but hindsight is always 20-20.”
In January, he said, we had no domestic capacity to produce COVID-19 vaccines and had to deal with the U.S., who didn’t want to send them abroad, which forced Canada to purchase from Europe.
“In every country, certainly a country of our size, it is a part of national security to have our own supply of various medical devices and therapeutics, including vaccines,” Pakes said.
–With files from Global News’ Jamie Mauracher and The Canadian Press