Health experts tell Ottawa to hurry domestic vaccine funding amid China delays

Health experts tell Ottawa to hurry domestic vaccine funding amid China delays

The federal government has created a $600-million fund to support vaccine clinical trials

The Trudeau government is being pressed to approve funding for a made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine to lessen the risk Canadians will have to line up and wait on a foreign-made pandemic cure.

For instance, health-care professionals have written to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains to urge him make up his mind on a proposal submitted in April by Providence Therapeutics of Toronto. The company is seeking $35 million to establish whether its vaccine is effective in humans after successful animal trials.

They say Canada has no guarantee it will be at the front of any line for an internationally produced pandemic cure. They attribute government’s slowness to a long-standing public policy problem: reluctance to partner with pharmaceutical and biotech companies in the same way it has tried to bolster other sectors.

“When you’re dealing with a pandemic like this and the government has already spent millions of dollars on all sorts of things, an additional investment into another vaccine technology, to increase our shots on goal in Canada, to help ensure that we actually develop the best vaccine, the most efficacious vaccine, I think to me makes sense,” said Laszlo Radvanyi, the president and scientific director of the publicly funded Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.

ALSO READ: Should a vaccine for COVID-19 be made mandatory in Canada, once it’s created?

The federal government has created a $600-million fund to support vaccine clinical trials and manufacturing inside Canada.

Providence has told the government it could deliver five million doses of its new mRNA vaccine by mid-2021 for use in Canada if it were able to successfully complete human testing.

The mRNA technology is new and untested but experts say it has potential.

Radvanyi and others say the research deserves support because there are troubling signs Canadians might have wait to receive a vaccine that is invented abroad.

Canada has already invested in a vaccine-development partnership between China’s CanSino Biologics and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia but China has held up shipments it was supposed to send to Dalhousie researchers by the end of May to start human trials.

Canada-China relations are severely strained after the People’s Republic imprisoned two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in apparent retaliation for the RCMP’s arresting Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant in December 2018.

“This should have been flagged as an obstacle when contemplating doing this program. We’re not on the best of terms with the Chinese government,” said Radvanyi, who has collaborated with Providence on vaccine treatments for cancer and wrote to Bains to support the company.

He also stressed that his support is based purely on the merits of the science behind the proposal.

“With any new technology, one needs to be careful not to drink the Kool-Aid and let the data and the science speak for itself. But clearly there are really promising data emerging” from new mRNA vaccine tests, including from the American company Moderna Inc. and the German firm BioNTech SE, said Radvanyi.

Both those companies have been heavily funded through U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” program to fast-track a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

This week the U.S. committed to pay BioNTech and its American partner Pfizer $1.95 billion to produce 100 million doses if their vaccine candidate proves safe and effective in humans. In April, the U.S. agreed to pay Moderna up to $483 million to fund its research. Next week, Moderna is set to launch a 30,000-person final round of testing to test the strength of its vaccine candidate.

“The mRNA technology is a newer more experimental technology but completely worthy of being part of the actual analysis which is being undertaken and will be considered as part of the investment portfolio,” Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday.

Tam said the government is carefully examining data, while trying to take an “accelerated approach not just on the regulatory and clinical trial front, but also an accelerated approach on looking at investments as well.”

Providence’s chief executive Brad Sorenson said he has heard “crickets” from Ottawa since late May after his company submitted its proposal in April — after the government reached out to it as a possible vaccine-maker.

“We need a Canadian solution, a manufacturing solution in Canada. All of our (intellectual property), all of our manufacturing, all of the work we are doing is inside Canada,” said Sorenson.

The company wants to move forward with human trials because it has generated neutralizing antibodies in animals, with the same technology that BioNTech and Moderna have used, said Sorenson.

“We had identified space to do a manufacturing run for our vaccine in September. We’ve lost that space now because we didn’t get any support, and we couldn’t hold it indefinitely.

“The next opportunity for us to manufacture would be late October, early November. So literally, we’re ready to do it. We just need the co-operation.”

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said vaccine applications are not “sitting around, gathering dust” and the government’s vaccine task force of experts was carefully reviewing them.

Bains spokesman John Power said he couldn’t comment on specific proposals, but said the evaluation process is ongoing.

Brad Wouters, executive vice-president of science and research at Toronto’s University Health Network, said the time has come for Canada to “hedge” its bets and support Providence, given the hold-up of the Chinese shipment.

“This, to me, is sort of a no-brainer to give these guys a shot, especially with the promising data coming out of the U.S. and other places,” said Wouters, who also wrote to Bains to support Providence.

The new mRNA technology is a departure from how vaccines have traditionally been made to counter the flu or polio, for example. The traditional approach involves taking some of the actual virus, rendering it safe or inactive and then injecting it into the human body to create an immune response.

Instead, the mRNA approach involves injecting a key fragment of genetic material from the virus so the human body can produce the viral proteins needed to mount an immune response, said Wouters.

One advantage of mRNA vaccines is they’re relatively inexpensive to produce, said Tania Watts, a professor of immunology at the University of Toronto, who is conducting a study on how long immunity to COVID-19 lasts in people who have recovered from infections.

“They’re chemically made so you don’t need to have live virus and you don’t have to grow cells. The first trials from Moderna look like two doses gave really great antibody responses,” she said.

But Watts said more research is needed to establish how effective the new vaccines are.

Watts she said she doesn’t necessarily favour Providence or any other project that has succeeded in getting federal funding, but said it has one among many “promising platforms” for a vaccine.

Watts said the government should back a made-in-Canada vaccine because China, and even the U.S., can’t be relied upon to share one. She also said that multiple vaccines in multiple doses is the likely end-game scenario for the pandemic.

“We don’t know if vaccines made outside Canada are going to be available to us,” said Watts. “If you were the U.S., you’d probably want to make sure that your own supply was secured first.”

Radvanyi said the COVID-19 vaccine race has exposed the government’s flawed approach in collaborating with a private sector driven by profit motives.

“There has to be a motive to make money to sustain operations, but through a public-private partnership the government can help drive a new paradigm in terms of drug development and manufacturing.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Just Posted

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires Vancouver Island wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

RCMP say a woman turned herself in to police after hitting a pedestrian and fleeing the scene of the accident in downtown Nanaimo on Friday morning. (File photo)
Driver flees, then turns herself in after hitting pedestrian in downtown Nanaimo

Nanaimo RCMP say woman was struck in marked crosswalk after driver ran red light

Wayne Allen's graduation photo from Chemainus Secondary School. (Photo submitted)
Brother charged with murder in Chemainus teenager’s Ontario death

Jesse James Allen stands accused in the death of Wayne Allen, a 2020 Chemainus Secondary grad

Kim McGregor died in the Feb. 14 hit-and-run accident in Chemainus. (Photo submitted)
Victim identified in Valentine’s Day Chemainus hit-and-run

Kim McGregor grew up in Chemainus and had recently returned to be close to his parents

Tyson Popove placed second in his category at the Mt. Washington Viewtour Virtual Slopestyle event. Photo by Shawn Corrigan
10-year-old soars high above Mount Washington, slopestyle

Campbell River skier Tyson Popove goes big in ski hill’s virtual competition

Dr. Bonnie Henry leaves the podium after talking about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
COVID: 589 new cases in B.C., and 7 new deaths

No new outbreaks being reported Feb. 26

Amy Morrison was surprised to find a note on her windshield for parking on a public street with no restrictions in south Oak Bay where she works. (Amy Morrison Photo)
Note left for Oak Bay resident ignites debate about on-street parking

‘You must have noticed, we park in front of OUR HOUSE,’ note writer says

Cowichan Tribes open up vaccinations for members who are 40 and older. (File photo)
Cowichan Tribes opens up vaccinations for members 18 and older

Vaccination sessions to be held over weekend

Police in Nanaimo found multiple graffiti tags they allege were made by three men arrested for mischief in Maffeo Sutton Park on Feb. 15. (Photo submitted)
Graffiti taggers caught in Nanaimo with paint on their hands

Three suspects arrested at Maffeo Sutton Park last week

The first of 11 Dash 8 Q400 aircraft's have arrived in Abbotsford. Conair Group Inc. will soon transform them into firefighting airtankers. (Submitted)
Abbotsford’s Conair begins airtanker transformation

Aerial firefighting company creating Q400AT airtanker in advance of local forest fire season

The Canada Revenue Agency says there were 32 tax fraud convictions across the country between April 2019 and March 2020. (Pixabay)
Vancouver man sentenced to 29 months, fined $645K for tax evasion, forgery

Michael Sholz reportedly forged documents to support ineligible tax credits linked to homeownership

Then-Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson looks on as MLA Shirley Bond answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
B.C. Liberal party to choose next leader in February 2022

Candidates have until Nov. 30 to declare whether they are running

After nearly 10 months of investigations, Mounties have made an arrest in the tripping of an elderly woman in Burnaby this past April. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Mounties charge suspect for tripping elderly woman near Metrotown in April

32-year-old Hayun Song is accused of causing bodily harm to an 84-year-old using her walker

British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives to view the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on Friday, July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Death threats mount against Dr. Bonnie Henry, sparking condemnation from Horgan, Dix

Henry has become a staple on televisions in homes across British Columbia since January 2020

Most Read