Manitoba

Canadian company says Manitoba isn't giving up on its vaccine, despite threat to leave country

Manitoba's interest in a COVID-19 vaccine developed by a Calgary-based company hasn't waned, despite the developer threatening to move their operations overseas. 

Providence Therapeutics still seeking federal support after reporting good results in Phase 1 human trial

Providence Therapeutics CEO Brad Sorenson said it is his ethical duty to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, even if his product isn't wanted by his country of origin. (Providence Therapeutics)

Manitoba's interest in a COVID-19 vaccine developed by a Calgary-based company hasn't waned, despite the developer threatening to move their operations overseas. 

Brad Sorenson, the CEO of Providence Therapeutics, said on Wednesday his office is in "constant communication" — at least twice a week — with officials from Manitoba, the only Canadian jurisdiction committing to purchase their vaccine so far.

"If we had the same level of support federally that we're receiving in Manitoba, this would be a much different conversation," Sorenson said.

He was speaking Wednesday, after Providence reported in a news release their Phase 1 human trial showed their vaccine was at least as effective as other mRNA vaccines, with no serious side effects.

The status of Providence's deal with Manitoba has been questioned after Sorenson said last month his firm would pull out of Canada and take its product elsewhere.

When asked if Manitoba's preliminary agreement with Providence was affected, Premier Brian Pallister said last week that no formal contract was signed, but "we've got other irons in the fire" to procure domestic vaccines.

Roadblocks for Canadian vaccine developer

The premier has been an staunch defender of Providence since February, when critics and opposition parties accused Pallister of banking on an untested, underfunded firm. It is expected Providence's vaccine will not be eligible for federal approval until 2022. 

Last month, Sorenson said he was fed up with federal and provincial governments since his calls for more substantial federal support went unanswered.

"I'm moving on, that's where I'm at now. I've prostrated myself at the altar of government in Canada for a year and I've received nothing for it. I'm tired of begging and pleading," he told CBC News last month.

In an interview Wednesday, Sorenson said a relocation of Providence's operations isn't certain, "but we are definitely looking at options."

Regardless of where the company is headquartered, the vaccine would still be manufactured in Canada, he said. Emergent Biosolutions has a Winnipeg facility slated to manufacture the vaccine. 

The Manitoba government agreed in February to pay Providence $36 million for its vaccine. The parties settled on a non-refundable up-front payment of $7.2 million, but Sorenson said no money will be exchanged until a formal contract is signed.

He wants to wait until Providence has more certainty surrounding its operations.

"Under no circumstance am I going to enter into an agreement with Manitoba, the only government in Canada that's really stepped up and supported us, and put them at a disadvantage. That's not going to happen," Sorenson said.

A medication vial is shown in this undated handout image provided by Providence Therapeutics. The company said its Phase 1 trial was successful and it is still hoping that Ottawa will provide financial support. (Providence Therapeutics/The Canadian Press)

He's continually sought financial help from the federal government — including a $150 million ask through an open letter. So far, Ottawa has obtained all of Canada's COVID-19 vaccine supply internationally. 

More recently, Sorenson has asked Ottawa for 500 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be used in a comparator trial for Phase 2 of the clinical trial of Providence's vaccines. He said he's received no response after two months of inquiries. 

Providence will have to go to a different country for its trial if they don't get a response by Friday, he said. 

"We're not going to sit back and wait and have that control our fate. We've got a backup plan."

A spokesperson for François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, said the federal government has actually provided Providence with "significant federal support."

The firm received up to $10 million earlier this year, the spokesperson said. Providence and other vaccine candidates and therapeutic candidates are also getting a share of $37 million toward development, and an additional $113 million will be available to the most promising of these candidates, they added. 

Sorenson acknowledged Canada may have ordered enough vaccines for 2022 already, but "it would be unethical for me not to make vaccines that could save lives around the world if I have the ability to do so."

Sorenson expects Canadians to require COVID-19 booster shots for at least a few years.

A positive step for Providence is the results of the Phase 1 trail, which showed the vaccine has "strong virus neutralization capability" compared to other mRNA vaccines, Sorenson said. 

He is planning for the Phase 2 trial to start in June — in Canada, or elsewhere — and a Phase 3 trial after that.

"I'm optimistic, I'm really excited to go head-to-head against Pfizer."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files by John Paul Tasker

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