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Justin Trudeau, second left, speaks with scientist Krishnaraj Tiwari, left, as Minister of Economic Development Mélanie Joly, centre, and Minister of Science and Industry Navdeep Bains look on during a visit to the National Research Council of Canada Royalmount Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre facility in Montreal, on Aug 31, 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Ottawa has struck new deals with two additional U.S. companies working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, as it seeks to improve its chances for Canadians to receive a vaccine quickly.

The federal government announced Monday it has signed agreements with Novavax to supply up to 76 million doses and Johnson & Johnson for up to 38 million doses of their respective candidate vaccines. That means Canada now has agreements with four international biotech companies.

“Our strategy is to secure agreements with numerous developers of vaccine candidates so that Canadians are well positioned as clinical trials advance among these developers,” Anita Anand, Minister of Public Services and Procurement, said in a press conference. “Diversification in our vaccine contracts and in our supply is crucial.”

Ottawa announced in early August it had reached agreements with Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. to acquire their potential vaccines. Releasing further details of those contracts, Ms. Anand told reporters Moderna has agreed to supply up to 56 million doses, and Pfizer will supply a minimum of 20 million doses. Altogether, Ottawa has now secured a guaranteed minimum of 88 million doses, with options for an additional 102 million doses, for a total of 190 million doses, Ms. Anand said.

She noted all vaccine candidates must undergo successful clinical trials and receive Health Canada approval before they are distributed to Canadians.

Countries around the world are currently jockeying to reserve doses from various producers as soon as their vaccines become available. Ms. Anand hinted at the fierce competition involved in these negotiations.

“The environment is intense. The demand is high. And each negotiation is unique,” she said, explaining the government continues to seek deals with multiple suppliers, including Britain-based AstraZeneca, and is releasing the agreements and their details separately.

Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University, said that he would have preferred to see Canada and other well-off countries work exclusively through a World Health Organization-led effort to collectively develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines for the globe.

“This is ultimately not what should be happening when it comes to securing vaccine supply around the world,” he said of Ottawa negotiating with individual vaccine-makers. “Yet the Canadian government didn’t have a choice once other governments started to do it.”

So far, Ottawa has not revealed what it has agreed to pay for tens of millions of doses of different COVID-19 vaccines, which Prabhat Jha, a professor of global health at the University of Toronto and director of the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital, said is discouraging. “That really should be a matter of the public record. It is, after all, the taxpayers’ money.”

Novavax and Johnson & Johnson’s experimental vaccines are based on different technologies. Both have been tested in early-stage human trials that found them to be safe, but neither candidate has moved into large Phase 3 trials designed to figure out if they actually work.

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Novavax’s candidate is a protein vaccine manufactured in moth cells. Vaccines based on peptides, or tiny units of proteins, have been approved for other diseases, including hepatitis B. However, Maryland-based Novavax has never before brought a vaccine to market.

Last month, the company released the results of a small trial involving 131 healthy adults that showed the vaccine produced a higher level of neutralizing antibodies than has generally been found in the blood of people who recovered from COVID-19.

A related study found the vaccine prevented the coronavirus from replicating in the lower and upper respiratory tracts of monkeys, meaning that if the vaccine worked as well for humans, it would prevent people from getting sick and from spreading the virus, at least for a time.

“I really thought that [Novavax] had compelling pre-clinical data and clinical data,” said Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax who is currently working at the University of Saskatchewan’s VIDO-InterVac, which is developing a coronavirus vaccine of its own. Dr. Kelvin is not directly involved in that work.

The Johnson & Johnson candidate uses a harmless version of an adenovirus – a virus that normally causes the common cold – to deliver a modified bit of the virus’s genetic code, prompting the immune system to raise its defences.

However, Dr. Kelvin raised concerns about the adenovirus as a delivery system because older adults, the group most in need of protection from COVID-19, may not mount a strong enough immune response.

Phase 3 trials of the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines are expected to begin this fall.

Meanwhile, the vaccines being developed by Massachusetts-based Moderna and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer are based on messenger RNA technology. Both vaccines have entered Phase 3 testing, making them among the furthest along in the development process.

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