The Current

Boosting vaccine production in Canada was a good idea — 10 years ago, says biologist

As Canada prepares to develop COVID-19 vaccines in-house at a facility in Montreal, one biologist says the country should have boosted its capacity to manufacture shots a decade ago.

Robert Van Exan says swine flu outbreak highlighted need to improve vaccine supply

Plans are underway to start manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines at a Montreal facility later this year, after Canada's vaccine shipments from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech were delayed. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Story Transcript

As Canada prepares to develop COVID-19 vaccines in-house at a facility in Montreal, one biologist says the country should have boosted its capacity to manufacture shots long ago.

"It was a good idea 10 years ago when we went through the last pandemic and had Senate committee hearings and reviews by just about everybody and his brother on what went right, and what went wrong," said Robert Van Exan, referring to the swine flu outbreak that started in 2009.

"And one of the things that came out of that is we need a secure supply of vaccines."

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to produce millions of coronavirus vaccines later this year at the National Research Council-owned Royalmount facility in Montreal.

Maryland-based company Novavax is poised to develop those vaccines. Unlike the shots being produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which are mRNA vaccines, Novavax's vaccine is protein-based.

However, construction of the Montreal facility isn't expected to finish until July.

Months of work ahead

Beyond finishing the building, there are still a number of other hurdles to overcome before any made-in-Canada vaccines are ready for use, said Van Exan, who has spent nearly four decades working in Canada's vaccine industry.

First, the Royalmount building will need to meet a series of complex requirements, Van Exan told The Current's Matt Galloway. Those include balanced airflow, and having high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

The building would also need to be equipped with the tools to build vaccines, such as bioreactors, and a filling and packaging operation for the finished shots, he said.

Then, the facility must be approved by a regulator, who assures that manufacturing practices are up to par — a process that could take months.

Biologist Robert Van Exan has nearly four decades of experience working in Canada's vaccine industry. (Submitted by Robert Van Exan)

Finally, the vaccines themselves are made. 

A protein-based shot like Novavax's could take anywhere from six to nine months to manufacture — from the time work begins on the vaccine, until the time it rolls off the assembly line, Van Exan said. 

He added that he doesn't know why Canada didn't heed advice to beef up its vaccine manufacturing capacity years earlier.

However, now is not the time to point fingers, but to look to the future, he said.

Pandemic preparedness plan needed: Van Exan

"Building this plant is not a bad idea in itself, but what is wrong is that it needs to be part of a pandemic plan," said Van Exan.

That plan should outline which public health measures need to be enacted during any future pandemics, where vaccines will come from, and how those shots will be produced, according to Van Exan.

"The most important part of this is, how do you create an environment in Canada to have that manufacturing capacity from companies that actually have the expertise to do the manufacturing? Because there's very few of them," he said.

Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, chair of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, agrees on the importance of being able to produce vaccines domestically.

Caroline Quach-Thanh is chair of Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization. (Amélie Philibert, Université de Montréal)

"We need capacity here because we've seen what's happening when we don't have anything that is on our own soil," she told Galloway. 

Last week, Moderna announced it would be delaying a scheduled shipment of vaccines to Canada. The move came after Pfizer and BioNTech cancelled an entire shipment of vaccines destined for Canada, citing slowdowns caused by upgrades to its Belgium production facility.

Being able to create vaccines in-house would give Canada more "negotiation power," Quach-Thanh said.

Building vaccine capacity in Canada

Van Exan said Toronto is one place that already has world-class manufacturing facilities for producing non-COVID vaccines.

Going forward, those facilities could set up contracts with other companies, to create extra capacity to work on pandemic-related vaccines, he suggested.

"That would be, to me, something that could go into the pandemic plan, is how could we contract for reserve capacity," he said. 

But despite all the challenges COVID-19 has brought, Van Exan said he's impressed with how the science community has tackled the pandemic.

"The industry itself is coming together in an unprecedented way to support the manufacturing of vaccines under dire circumstances. And I'm very pleased to see that." he said.

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Amanda Grant and Alex Zabjek.

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