As It Happens·Q&A

Canadian vaccine maker says it would be closer to rollout if it had more help from Ottawa

As the European Union threatens to limit the export of COVID-19 vaccines, one company says it's time for the federal government to throw its support behind made-in-Canada alternatives. 

'When we approached the government, we were two months behind Moderna,' says CEO of Providence Therapeutics

A medication vial is shown in this undated handout image provided by Providence Therapeutics. (Providence Therapeutics/The Canadian Press)

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As the European Union threatens to limit the export of COVID-19 vaccines, one company says it's time for the federal government to throw its support behind made-in-Canada alternatives. 

While international companies like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have dominated the COVID-19 vaccine game so far, several Canadian companies are also working on their own vaccine candidates.

One of them, Calgary-based Providence Therapeutics, announced Tuesday that it has started human clinical trials in Toronto to test its candidate, an mRNA vaccine that works similarly to Moderna's. 

The federal government has provided funding to the Canadian companies working on vaccines, but struck procurement deals with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, both of which are manufactured abroad. The government has said Canada lacks the capacity to manufacture the millions of doses needed to immunize the population. 

As It Happens has reached out to Procurement Minister Anita Anand for an interview. 

Providence Therapeutics CEO Brad Sorenson says his company hopes to have a vaccine ready for rollout by early next year. But he says it could have happened a lot sooner had the federal government gotten on board early. 

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

How soon might you be able to get through the different phases and get to production of a vaccine that Canadians might be getting?

If everything goes smoothly, we should be able to finish the clinical trial process this year and be able to be rolling out commercial vaccines to Canadians by early 2022.

How much support have you had from Ottawa with your project?

We ultimately got two funding grants from the government. One was through an organization called NGen, which stands for Next Generation Manufacturing, and that was a grant that allowed us to purchase some equipment. And we got that in partnership with another company called Northern RNA so that we could start building out manufacturing…. So we got about $3.5 million for that.

And then we also got $4.7 million from the National Research Council [Canada] to sponsor our Phase 1 trial.

So it helps. I'm grateful for what we got. We need a lot more.

And hopefully, with the success that we've had in getting into the clinic and working to demonstrate some good clinical data in the coming months and … with the Canadian government realizing that there are some supply challenges, that they'll realize the importance of having a Canadian supplier.

When we approached the government, we were two months behind Moderna.- Brad Sorenson, CEO of Providence Therapeutics 

And so just going back to that, because the proposal you submitted in the spring was a request for $35 million that was going to allow you to begin first-stage human trials, which is what you're now starting here in January/February. So had you received that, had the federal government supported you then, how much faster would you have been having this made-in-Canada solution?

When we approached the government, we were two months behind Moderna.

So if they had responded to you, where would you be right now?

If we would have had support, we could have advanced our program. I don't know if we would have advanced at the exact pace as Moderna. I mean, they got a billion dollars. We weren't asking for a billion dollars. But we wouldn't be talking about Phase 1 right now. We'd be talking about Phase 3 and rolling out vaccines to Canadians this summer.

I know you're quite happy that you're starting this now and you're getting this rolling. But how frustrating is it for you that you could have been that solution so much earlier?

I am frustrated. You know, we've had a consistent message. We've said that they're going to experience challenges, supply challenges. We said, "If you thought getting PPE was difficult, wait 'til you're trying to deal with the vaccine." And we're seeing that now.

You can't expect the host nations, whether it's the European Union or the U.S., to spend billions and billions of dollars to fast-track a vaccine and then export that vaccine. 

We've been saying we need to have our own capacity here in Canada from the beginning.

A healthy volunteer receives an injection in this undated handout image provided by Providence Therapeutics. (Providence Therapeutics/The Canadian Press)

There is one Canadian home-grown idea or initiative. The Quebec-based company Medicago is the only Canadian company with an agreement signed with the federal government. How different is yours to what they're developing?

I hope they succeed. I mean, I want there to be lots of options, lots of solutions, to deal with this pandemic.

I started my company to go after cancer, not to go after COVID. And, you know, we stopped a cancer program to work on this because we felt there was a need, an overwhelming need. And I really want to get back to that other program. And so, you know, I can't speak much to Medicago's progress and their technology. I'll let them speak for themselves.

And you're manufacturing this in Calgary, is that right?

Yep. We actually started our manufacturing in Toronto at Sunnybrook Research Institute. But it's not a large enough facility for us to take it to the next stage. So we did all of our Phase 1 and Phase 2 vaccines in that facility. And now we're in the process of transferring that manufacturing from Toronto to Calgary and building up the capacity in Calgary.

We heard today that the European Union is threatening to stop any [exports] of European-made vaccines … to other countries before they've given the vaccine to citizens in Europe. The United States has made similar threats. How important do you think it is to have what you're offering, which is a Canadian-made ... solution?

I would be stunned if we do not hear from the federal government next week. There's no other way I could describe it. If we don't hear from them next week, you know, let's call back and have another interview, because it would, I think, create national outrage.

We've got an opportunity to solve our problem, and not only solve our problem, but contribute to solving the worldwide problem. Instead of competing for a scarce resource and trying to buy our way up the queue, we can add to capacity. 

And I think that's really where we're at, and I think we can do that.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Providence Therapeutics is based in Toronto. In fact, it is based in Calgary.
    Feb 11, 2021 3:54 PM ET

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