Canada building facilities to make vaccines for COVID-19 and other viruses

In the initial sprint to create a vaccine for COVID-19, Pfizer and Moderna crossed the finish line first. But for Canadian researchers who continue to work away at coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics, there are still big potential wins ahead.

While priority groups are already being inoculated against the virus thanks to vaccine shipments arriving from Europe, researchers like Volker Gerdts, CEO of Saskatoon’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), have their sights set on Canada’s long game.

“It is important for us, for Canadians, to have long-term access to made-in-Canada vaccines,” he said.

Gerdts’ team was among the first out the gate with promising COVID-19 research, but did not have the manufacturing capability to create vaccine components needed to keep its momentum going. It was a temporary setback that shed light on essential gaps in Canadian infrastructure. With new funding from multiple levels of government, the team has started building what it needs to create human vaccines in-house well into the future.

It’s a long-term strategy being pursued from the very top. According to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, “When this pandemic began, Canada had no flexible, large-scale biomanufacturing capacity suitable for a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Spurred by the urgent need for COVID-19 vaccines and with hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funding, several teams are now building the infrastructure Canada needs to take advanced vaccine research and make it into a product within the country’s borders.

Scaffolding outside the lab at the University of Saskatchewan is a sign of the ongoing renovations there. After they’re completed next fall, the upgrades could allow researchers to make up to 40 million doses of the VIDO team’s COVID-19 vaccines each year.

Workers in Saskatoon are expanding the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) facility at the University of Saskatchewan. (CBC)

Crucially, Gerdts said, the facility will be “open to all Canadians, and in fact all international groups that are looking for it” to pilot promising developments.

“For the country to be better prepared, we need to have this capacity,” he added.

Other projects are also underway to achieve this goal. One of the largest involves Quebec-based biopharmaceutical company Medicago, which has experience developing rapid responses to emerging viruses, such as Ebola and H1N1. The company has received $173 million in federal funding to move forward with its COVID-19 vaccine research, and to establish a large-scale Canadian manufacturing facility in Quebec City.

Its aim is “to first develop new technologies to react rapidly, but also to be able to protect our own citizens,” said Nathalie Charland, a senior director with Medicago.

Nathalie Charland, a senior director with Medicago, says the company hopes to be able to produce anywhere between 500 million and 1 billion doses of vaccine per year by 2023 at its new plant being built in Quebec City. (Medicago)

The company’s plant-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate is now in Phase 2 clinical trials. If things go according to plan, there will be 80 million doses by the end of this year, produced at facilities in Canada and the U.S.

By the end of 2023, Medicago expects to be making vaccines from start to finish in the new manufacturing plant in the eastern part of Quebec City.

“We hope to be able to produce anywhere between 500 million and 1 billion doses per year,” Charland said.

That’s enough to help the Canadian population with ongoing vaccine needs, but also the world, which Charland points out will require billions of doses to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

A researcher at Medicago works on a vaccine. If things go according to plan, there will be 80 million doses of its vaccine by the end of this year, produced at facilities in Canada and the U.S. (Medicago)

‘We need to reverse that trend’

Canada has been a global leader in vaccine development before. In the middle of the last century, public labs in Ontario and Quebec provided the ability to produce them here at home. Toronto’s Connaught Laboratories played a key role in developing the polio vaccine in the 1950s, for example.

However, through privatization and globalization, “we lost that capacity,” said Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Now, Halperin said, “we need to reverse that trend.”

Vaccine independence is important, he said, because relying on relationships with other countries to secure supplies of vaccines doesn’t always work.

“Countries and governments tend to think about their own populations first,” he said. “And they’re not necessarily going to want vaccines to leave their borders before their own population’s needs are met.”

Researchers work on a COVID-19 vaccine at Saskatoon’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) lab. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Halperin also pointed out that this likely won’t be the last time Canadians require a new vaccine or therapeutic to combat a new virus. Avoiding another “mad rush” to access vaccines in that case, he said, is key.

For that reason, Volker Gerdts hopes Canada continues to support domestic vaccine research and production, even after the pandemic. With Zika, SARS, MERS and other diseases that have cropped up over the past few years, he said, future viruses are to be expected.

Beyond Canadians’ potential ongoing need for coronavirus vaccines and boosters down the road, he added, “what we really are also preparing for at the same time by doing all of this [is] the next pandemic, the next emerging disease.”

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