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Dr. Michael Houghton sits in his lab at the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.Michael Holly/The Canadian Press

Michael Houghton is the director of the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute and the winner, in October, of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. D. Lorne Tyrrell is the founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and a distinguished professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Alberta.

We are at a critical point in the fight against COVID-19. Vaccine rollouts across the country are ramping up, but COVID-19 still has the upper hand with several provinces once again reinstating restrictions. The pandemic has taught us many hard lessons – and one of the most critical is that Canada needs to develop and produce vaccines at home.

As of April 14, Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker notes that Canada has fallen to 50th in the world in terms of vaccine delivery rates, caused in large part by our dependence on other countries to supply our vaccine needs. We must act now to reverse this trend. We need to be ready to adapt and produce new vaccines, especially as variants become more prevalent. We need to prepare now for the next pandemic to prevent the crippling impacts on the economy, education and the healthcare systems that we’ve experienced during COVID-19.

To do this, dedicated investment is essential. Canada is not short on talent; indeed, foundational research on modifications and biology of mRNA by Canadian researchers contributed to the development of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. The liposome technology that serves as the delivery vehicle for both of the mRNA vaccines was developed by a Canadian biotech company. The adenoviral concept used by the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines was developed by a Canadian scientist in the 1980s.

The unfortunate reality is that these Canadian ideas are now being translated into products and treatments by companies outside of Canada. It is time to change this. Let us invest now in our own talent to develop new vaccines and therapies, and build capacity for end-to-end production.

There are some positive signs. Recent research investments in biomanufacturing have increased and need to be sustained. On March 31, the federal and Ontario governments announced a major public-private partnership with Sanofi Pasteur to build an influenza-vaccine manufacturing facility in Toronto. This is a major step forward, but Canada must do more to capitalize on past federal and provincial investments in research to build a thriving biotech industry in several regions of the country.

Alberta is an excellent example. A recent $20-million investment in the University of Alberta from the provincial government shows how such institutions are attracting resources to seriously develop a much-needed commercialization pipeline that can produce a range of vaccines and therapeutics. Decades of provincial, federal, industry and philanthropic funding in virology and immunology research led to the establishment of the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute, where teams of exceptional researchers are working on novel therapeutics for COVID-19, as well as vaccines for hepatitis C virus and Group A Streptococcus, among others. This $20-million investment is an important recognition of the major potential that exists in Alberta, but further investment from the federal government will be essential to fully achieve what is possible.

Vaccine development, after all, is expensive. Taking a vaccine from discovery research through clinical trials to market can cost up to $100-million. Attracting upfront investment and building out an innovation pipeline are skills in which Canada continues to struggle. But the case for investment is strong. Vaccines not only save lives; they also dramatically reduce healthcare and social costs. For example, a successful hepatitis C vaccine could ultimately save Canada’s healthcare system $1-billion over 10 years.

By 2023, worldwide revenues in the pharmaceutical and therapeutics sector are expected to reach US$1.5-trillion. One successful vaccine can produce self-sustaining product royalties in excess of US$300-million over its lifetime. Redirecting those royalties back into research and development can allow a thriving biotech sector to flourish. One vibrant pharmaceutical company taking itself public can also employ hundreds, providing opportunities to retain highly qualified Canadian researchers here at home.

More than 23,000 Canadians have lost their lives to COVID-19 and many more have lost their livelihoods. We must change course. The federal government needs to increase investment from basic science to translational research now – because, as the old proverb reminds us, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best time is today.

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