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In two years’ time, Precision Nanosystem, a Vancouver company, expects to open its own facility capable of manufacturing mRNA vaccines.

Courtesy of Precision Nanosystem

In two years’ time, a Vancouver company expects to open a facility capable of manufacturing mRNA vaccines – the type that the world is clamouring for right now to inoculate against COVID-19. Using small, relatively inexpensive instruments, Precision NanoSystems Inc. will have the capacity to produces tens of millions of doses daily.

Biotech researchers around the globe collaborated to develop the COVID-19 vaccine in record time, but Canada’s greatly diminished manufacturing capacity has left it at the mercy of international sources to secure supplies.

Last week, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister announced he was done with waiting for Ottawa to deliver vaccines. His province signed a deal to purchase them from a Calgary company, Providence Therapeutics, that hopes to be producing the vaccine by the end of this year.

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Canadian companies such as Providence have had little support from the federal government to encourage domestic supply, although that is starting to change.

Precision NanoSystems landed $25-million from Ottawa to help launch its project to establish a biomanufacturing centre in Vancouver, where it will produce ribonucleic acid (RNA) lipid nanoparticle vaccines that “will define the future of medicine,” the company says.

”Our government is bringing back the vaccine manufacturing capacity that Canadians expect and need,” François-Philippe Champagne, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, said in a statement that accompanied the funding announcement.

It’s a welcome investment, but the date on that announcement is Feb. 2, 2021, more than one year after B.C. confirmed its first COVID-19 case.

“Canada should have invested in new technology five years ago, so that you would have this manufacturing capacity to be ready for this pandemic,” observed Dr. Padma Kodukula, Precision Nanosystem’s senior vice-president for global business development. But no matter, she said – it will not be too late. “We are late in the game here in Canada, but we are building the platform for pandemic response, so next time we will be as fast as Moderna.”

Vancouver is a natural home for this production, she said, because it is where many of the top researchers in the field are. “Vancouver is really a mecca of nanopartical technology – so much of the current vaccines have had their beginnings in Vancouver, especially at the University of British Columbia,” Dr. Kodukula said. A key breakthrough in developing the COVID-19 vaccine came from another Vancouver company, Acuitas Therapeutics.

B.C.’s public health officials have been focused on getting 4.3 million British Columbians vaccinated by September, based on supplies from the federal government. Already, the virus has already generated thousands of mutations, including some variants of concern.

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That means there will likely be a continuing need for vaccine supply: It will have to be adapted, as the annual influenza shot is.

“There’s a growing sense for most of us that we’re going to see it as a recurring respiratory virus in the respiratory season – so fall and winter for us – over the coming years,” B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said last week. “We might need boosters at some point in the future. And that’s why I think it’s important for us to start planning for altering vaccines.”

The good news is that the technology to develop mRNA vaccines is easily adaptable. But it still takes time to conduct trials and gain approvals.

Calgary’s Providence Therapeutics has a head start, but still awaits the green light from Health Canada for its Canadian-made vaccine. CEO Brad Sorenson says his company won’t be able to deliver on its deal with Manitoba likely until the end of this year. “We expect to be submitting for emergency use authorization [to Health Canada] in September. Will that be turned around in a month? Two months? That’s not something I know.”

Mr. Sorenson doesn’t think Canada has done a great job of helping rebuild domestic capacity. “We were trying, and not in a covert way, to engage the federal government,” he said in an interview. “We’d be happy to talk to [the federal government]. Our phones have never rung; at this point in time, it’s probably not going to.”

But Manitoba’s commitment to buy domestic, even though it won’t come in time to help with this phase of the pandemic, may be just the kind of support needed to be better prepared for the future.

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B.C.’s leadership has not criticized Ottawa for the vaccine rollout, and has been patient, until now, to wait its turn. But on Friday, Health Minister Adrian Dix suggested he is interested in Manitoba’s lead. He said he and Dr. Henry plan to talk to Providence Therapeutics about what they can offer B.C. “Certainly, we’re interested in anything in the long run, that would create stronger domestic capacity.”

With files from James Keller

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