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Canadian-made vaccine plant promised by Trudeau has not produced any shots

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a multi-million dollar funding commitment to build a vaccine plant in Montreal to produce Canadian-made COVID-19 shots by the end of 2020.

Four years later, not a single usable vial of vaccine has left production.

The publicly owned Biologics Manufacturing Center (BMC) was quickly built on land owned by the National Research Council on the site of a former animal vaccine plant, thanks to a cash injection of nearly $130 million. dollars from the federal government.

While construction was largely completed in June 2021 and Health Canada certified it as compliant with its regulations in July 2022, the taxpayer-funded facility has yet to do what it was intended to do: produce vaccine vials at scale. for patient use.

Meanwhile, the National Research Council (NRC) continues to fund the facility with $17 million annually to help keep about 100 employees working at the site, according to figures provided by the NRC, the research and development arm of the federal government. .

While construction of the Biologics Manufacturing Center in Montreal was largely completed in June 2021, and Health Canada certified it as compliant with its regulations in July 2022, the facility has not yet done what it was intended to do: produce vaccine vials at scale.  for patient use.
While construction of the Biologics Manufacturing Center in Montreal was largely completed in June 2021 (and Health Canada certified it as compliant with its regulations in July 2022), the facility has not yet produced vaccine vials at scale. for patient use. (Provided by the National Research Council of Canada)

Novavax, the American company expected to manufacture its shots at the BMC, told CBC News it still intends to move forward with Canadian-made COVID vaccines despite the delays.

The company, BMC and NRC have repeatedly surpassed supposed start dates and have told media at various times that production would begin in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Some experts question whether it’s worth the effort, as COVID vaccine sales plummet around the world and Pfizer and Moderna maintain their stranglehold on what’s left of the market.

Another COVID vaccine maker, AstraZeneca, recently recalled its product, citing a global surplus of COVID vaccines.

LOOK: Canada still has no vaccine plant despite federal promises (starting in 2022)

Canada still without a vaccine plant despite federal promises

A year after it was supposed to begin producing vaccines for Canada, the government-funded Montreal factory remains idle and continues to face regulatory hurdles.

Dr. Earl Brown is Professor Emeritus at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine and an expert in virology and microbiology.

Brown said there is a “niche” market for Novavax’s subunit vaccine, which uses a different technology than Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA products.

Novavax has been able to sell some of its protein-based vaccine to patients who want an alternative to mRNA.

But Brown questions whether the skeptical mRNA market is big enough to sustain a large operation like BMC in the long term.

As of February, only 37,343 Novavax shots had been administered in Canada, compared to more than 70 million Pfizer doses and about 33 million Moderna shots, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Pictured is equipment at the Biologics Manufacturing Center (BMC) in Montreal.
Specialized equipment at the Biologics Manufacturing Center (BMC) in Montreal. (Provided by the National Research Council)

“Can they be viable in the COVID market? Will they sell enough product to stay alive? I think it’s questionable whether they will survive. There are two big vaccine winners and Novavax is not one of them,” Brown said.

“I get very concerned when I hear about a vaccine facility that is not pumping product. When they are down, that’s a bad sign. You should be busy all the time, you should be active, up to date, and have staff authorized to distribute vaccines.” product continuously.”

Brown said he supported building a publicly owned vaccine plant in the “fog of 2020” but the longer it remains in limbo, the less viable it will be.

He said the federal government might eventually tire of pumping $17 million into a plant that produces nothing, or something that isn’t really in high demand.

He added that there is “amnesia with pandemics in the extreme” and that Ottawa could simply shelve its plans to prepare the country for the next health crisis.

“It’s a little scary when you think about other Crown corporations in the past,” he said, referring to the once world-leading Connaught Labs in Toronto, which was at the forefront of vaccine development for decades before being privatized.

“With a Crown corporation, what you want is for them to run out of power. Fill the supply, use new materials, don’t throw away materials, reagents that haven’t been used for a year. And this plant, in reality, just sits there “.

‘This is like Project Apollo’

After a failed partnership with a Chinese vaccine company, Ottawa chose Novavax to produce that company’s COVID product at the Montreal facility.

Announcing the switch to Novavax in February 2021, Trudeau said the publicly owned facility would produce tens of millions of shots by that summer.

It was billed as a way to reduce Canada’s dependence on foreign sources at a time of rapacious global competition for other Pfizer and Moderna products.

“This is a big step forward in getting vaccines made in Canada, for Canadians,” Trudeau said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters during a visit to the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) Royalmount Human Health Therapeutics Research Center facility in Montreal, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters during a visit to the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) Royalmount facility on August 31, 2020. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Also in February 2021, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne compared the construction of this type of facility (from scratch, in a limited time frame) to the United States’ effort to send an astronaut to the Moon.

“This is like Project Apollo,” Champagne said. “Normally, it would take two to three years to do this and get a production facility up and running.”

Three years later, it looks like it will take even longer to start production.

WATCH: Minister says COVID-19 vaccine production will begin in Canada (starting in 2021)

Minister says COVID-19 vaccine production will begin in Canada later this year

Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he expected production of the doses to begin at the Montreal-based plant in 2021.

In a news release, a Novavax spokesperson told CBC News that the company is expected to “complete engineering runs” and move to “producing process performance qualification batches for the updated strain” of its vaccine at the facility. from BMC sometime in 2024.

Novavax told CBC News in 2022 that it was completing the necessary “technology transfer” to the BMC site and was preparing to integrate “supply from this facility into our vaccine program.” The company also previously said it would produce those “performance rating batches” in early 2023.

Before COVID hit, Novavax had never brought a vaccine to market.

Novavax’s financial viability is an ongoing concern. Its shares fell sharply after it failed to make substantial progress with its vaccine.

But earlier this month, it secured an investment from French drugmaker Sanofi, which could stabilize its operations and help bring another product in development, a combination flu and COVID vaccine, to market.

“Novavax is not a deep company right now. They have had problems with their supply line, they failed two phase 3 clinical trials with their RSV vaccine. That means hundreds of millions of dollars lost. They have emptied their pockets and the company is a little weak right now,” Brown said.

An NRC spokesperson referred all questions about BMC and the Novavax partnership to BMC.

A spokesperson for BMC, which has broken away from the government and established itself as an independent nonprofit corporation, declined to comment on the facility’s progress with the Novavax product.

“We will have to refer it back to Novavax as it is the sole owner of the initiative communication,” the spokesperson said.

A technician is seen working at the Biologics Manufacturing Center in Montreal.
A technician works at the Biologics Manufacturing Center in Montreal. (Provided by the National Research Council)

But the spokesperson added that BMC is “on a great trajectory,” is “developing its capability and service offerings” and is engaging in “analytical testing with other partners.”

The BMC spokesperson said they could not say who the “other partners” are because they are legally bound to keep that secret.

The federal government continues to support the facility with annual funding, paying staff working in a facility that could, in theory, be dedicated to manufacturing other non-COVID-related products that Canadians need now or in the future.

The NRC provides annual funding to “ensure facilities remain in a state of readiness for good manufacturing practices and are prepared to respond to future public health emergencies,” the NRC website says.

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