How Montreal could lead the way to Canada's first domestically produced COVID-19 vaccine

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Canada was caught off balance and had to rely on foreign suppliers for the millions of vaccine doses it needed. A new facility in Montreal could mean domestically produced vaccines will be available if booster shots or new vaccines are needed.

If approved by Health Canada, Novavax vaccine would be manufactured in new Montreal facility

A vial of the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine is shown at Montreal's Biologics Manufacturing Centre in June. Montreal is poised to become the first Canadian city to produce a COVID-19 vaccine thanks to the construction of the facility. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

To date, every COVID-19 vaccine that has entered the arm of a Canadian has been produced outside the country.

That is now about to change.

With Novavax filing for approval of its vaccine with Health Canada, Montreal is poised to be the first Canadian city to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine, though domestically produced shots won't be available until next year.

It is a step that should help keep Canadians vaccinated through this current pandemic, equip the country for the next global health crisis and boost the nation's research and development.

Developed by the U.S. biotech company of the same name, Novavax is known as a protein subunit vaccine, making it different from the current COVID-19 vaccines we know. The bottom line: It still requires two doses, but trials have shown it is highly effective and quicker to manufacture.

"Having that type of effective vaccine within our borders is going to really allow us to roll this out to the population in a way that can take a bite out of the numbers," said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases specialist at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga. 

Canadian production should start in 2022 at the National Research Council of Canada's Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montreal.

Once it is up and running, federal officials say the facility should be able to produce 24 million doses of vaccine per year.

WATCH | This is the first Canadian facility to produce a COVID-19 vaccine:

A first COVID-19 vaccine manufactured on home soil

1 year ago
Duration 2:59
The National Research Council’s Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montreal will be the first Canadian facility to produce a COVID-19 vaccine with Novavax.

Do we need another vaccine?

Canada ordered millions of vaccines and, while the initial rollout was sluggish, deliveries soon outstripped demand.

So why do we need another vaccine? The short answer is boosters and variants — and other potential pandemics.

"This pandemic is not going away any time soon," said John Trizzino, the chief commercial officer and business officer for Novavax in an interview with CBC News in June when the facility was announced.

"We expect that there's going to be a circulation of this continuing through 2022 and 2023. And so therefore, we think it's important that we have enough production capacity in Canada to satisfy that."

Canada was once a front-runner of large-scale vaccine manufacturing and disease eradication, but lost its edge when labs were sold to international pharmaceutical giants in the 80s and 90s.

When COVID-19 vaccines began production, Canada had to rely on foreign manufacturers.

Deals with leading drug companies to produce their vaccines in Canada didn't pan out because the country lacked a facility that could be adequately retrofitted for production.

A vial of the Phase 3 Novavax COVID-19 vaccine is seen ready for use in a clinical trial in London, England. Novavax has filed for approval of its COVID-19 vaccine with Health Canada. (Alastair Grant/AP)

Once vaccines were approved by Health Canada, deliveries were slowed by supply-chain issues in Europe and political red tape with U.S. manufacturers, according to Chakrabarti.

A domestic facility would ease, if not eliminate, those problems, he said. And because future pandemics are a real possibility, having the ability to produce vaccines domestically would make Canada more independent.

The Montreal facility is a first step toward being self-sufficient in a time of crisis and "being able to hit the ground running and be prepared if anything like this were to occur again," Chakrabarti said.

A different kind of vaccine

Novavax is different than COVID-19 vaccines like Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna. Those mRNA vaccines deliver a genetic code to the body that instructs it to make its own spike protein, which trains the immune system to recognize and fight the famous spike protein that allows the SARS-CoV-2 virus to bind to cells and infect someone. Novavax does this by injecting a modified version of the spike protein's gene that doesn't make you sick.

The Novavax vaccine appears effective in terms of preventing hospitalizations and even symptomatic illness, Chakrabarti said.

In June, Novavax announced that clinical trials found the vaccine was about 90 per cent effective overall and preliminary data showed it was safe.

While Canada's current vaccination rollout of mostly mRNA vaccines is going well, Chakrabarti says that in the future we may need another type of vaccine to help diversify.

How protein subunit vaccines work to protect against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (CBC News)

In a perfect world, Canada should develop the capacity to produce more than one kind of vaccine, says Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology (CCfV) in Halifax.

"Diversity of choice is very useful in the response to the pandemic," he said.

"It is not that one platform is better than another; each has its advantages and disadvantages. It would be ideal if Canada had domestic manufacturing capability for all of these platforms."

Unlike mRNA vaccines, Novavax can be stored at refrigerator temperatures for weeks and does not need to be frozen in special ultra-low temperature freezers, making distribution simpler.

Moving forward there will be a need for vaccines that are easily accessible, and producing Novavax here is an answer to that, said Chakrabarti.

Montreal isn't the only place domestic vaccines will likely be produced. Medicago, which is producing Canada's only "homegrown" vaccine, is in Phase 3 trials and could be producing vaccine in Quebec City by 2023.

The University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, VIDO-InterVac, recently completed its first trial phase and, if it makes it through the approval process, could produce up to 40 million doses annually.

Putting Canada back on the vaccine map

While vaccination campaigns are going well here, many other parts of the world are struggling.

"This is a global disease and if there are major outbreaks happening in different parts of the world it will affect us in the end, indirectly and directly," said Chakrabarti, noting that if Canada is capable of producing vaccines domestically, it can also provide vaccines for other countries.

Domestic development of vaccines with the Montreal facility is also indicative of the country's adapting response to the pandemic. 

Last fall, Canada's National Research Council (NRC) shifted priorities and decided to build a permanent clinical trial facility, said NRC Life Sciences vice-president Lakshmi Krishnan.

National Research Council (NRC) Life Sciences vice-president Lakshmi Krishnan says the NRC shifted priorities during the pandemic and decided to build a permanent clinical trial facility. (National Research Council)

The facility would support the Biologics Manufacturing Centre, she said, acting as a bridge between research and development and large-scale production, manufacturing vaccines and biologics materials for clinical trials.

Construction is set to be complete in summer 2022, then it will go through an inspection and approval process.

All of this should put Montreal and Canada back on the vaccine map at a key time when vaccination and disease prevention is increasingly important with the emergence of different viral pathogens, Chakrabarti said.

Building the facility in Montreal could not only provide a sense of civic pride, he said, but could also be a "trailblazing type of event for the rest of Canada … to re-establish our ability to produce vaccines domestically."

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