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Domestic vaccine proposals under review before provincial support granted

The provincial government is awaiting a review of vaccine manufacturing proposals and configuring next steps in its plan to shore up Alberta’s pharmaceutical industry. 

17 companies submitted proposals to build and roll out pharmaceutical strategies in Alberta

Alberta's provincial government is sifting through domestic vaccine proposals from more than a dozen companies. (Chris Beauchamp for Alberta Health Services)

The provincial government is reviewing vaccine manufacturing proposals and configuring next steps in its plan to shore up Alberta's pharmaceutical industry.

Doug Schweitzer, minister of jobs, economy and innovation, told CBC News a third party is helping to analyze numerous proposals submitted by companies vying for provincial dollars and support to develop vaccines. 

"There's a whole range of options and proposals that have been made but all of them require further due diligence and legal review," he said. 

"We're making sure that they meet the needs for the health and safety of Albertans, they have the expertise to execute on the proposals that they've made, as well as the opportunity for job creation and diversification of our economy and also the ability to build it right here at home in our province."

The government put out a call for proposals earlier this month. Online submissions for the program closed on March 21 after a 10-day window for applicants.

The province initially said it was aware of five projects in Alberta that could likely be built out to improve COVID-19 vaccine supply. The government received 17 proposals from organizations across the world willing to carry out their projects in Alberta. 

Applicants were told to give an overview of the projects, including a timeline and the current state of their projects. The province would then assess the bids and their costs.

Total funding available still unknown

While specific details of each application are unknown, the minister said the applications range from manufacturing capacity, research and development, and commercializing vaccines currently in trial phase. 

The minister's office said the proposal reviews are expected to wrap up in late April. The minister and government will then decide how to proceed. 

However, there is currently no fixed budget for the initiative or fulsome details on its rollout. Schweitzer said funds could be made available through the $1.25-billion COVID-19 contingency fund, or as part of the $500 million set aside for an economic recovery contingency.

Schweitzer didn't rule out using part of the ministry of health's budget allotments. 

"This requires a longer-term rethink of how you approach your health spending at the provincial level," he said.

'Go to where the puck is going'

Providence Therapeutics has been one of Alberta's most prominent companies in the vaccine race, and it's put in a bid for a piece of what the government is offering.

The company's submission highlighted the opportunity for Alberta to support research, development, lab work and clinical trials while the rest of the world focuses on building "fill and finish" manufacturing facilities. 

"We're trying to steer Alberta away from that," CEO Brad Sorenson told CBC News. He added that if everyone is fixated on building factories, Alberta should be the one providing the ideas that fill the factories. 

"Go to where the puck is going." 

He resisted providing the specific dollar figure Providence requested but said it was upward of $100 million.

Not all the applications requested grants from the province. Others leaned toward purchase orders, loan guarantees or a government backstop. 

The federal government has also been looped in on Alberta's plans for these proposals. Schweitzer said he's had multiple conversations with his counterpart in Ottawa to see what partnership opportunities could arise if the ideas move forward.

There's no hard timeline for the rollout of these proposals. The minister said successful pitches could need short-term commitments or slowly unfurl over years. 

The timeline is an urgent matter for Sorenson, who said they could have used this program months ago. 

"We've got an asset, we need to start production. That's critical for us," he said.

More than half a million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Alberta. 

Details remain scarce but Schweitzer said Alberta hasn't missed benefiting from the vaccine boom. 

"There's still going to be a need to vaccinate billions of people around the world. There also may be needs for booster shots in the coming year," he said. 

"We're positioning ourselves for the longer-term here and also to potentially deal with the demand for vaccines internationally as well … We're going to move with urgency."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elise von Scheel is a reporter and producer with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau, currently working in Calgary. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.

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