Domestic vaccine-makers want more help from Ottawa: ‘There’s been a real lack of leadership’

In Entos Pharmaceuticals’ Edmonton lab, there’s excitement over how close the company is getting to developing a made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine. There’s also dismay.

With more federal help, Entos’ CEO John Lewis says they could be much closer to a vaccine than they are.

“We were hoping that the federal government would have stepped up early like other governments have done for their manufacturers and innovators.

“We just haven’t seen that. It’s very frustrating.”

Read more: Alberta slams federal rollout of COVID-19 vaccine as positivity rate sits at 3.9%

In March of last year, Lewis says Entos decided to change direction. The company had been working on cancer treatments and vaccines but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Entos focused on developing a vaccine.

They had the people and the know-how. What they didn’t have was a way to actually make the vaccine.

Click to play video 'Health Matters: Labour of love in the lab creating a COVID-19 vaccine' 3:16 Health Matters: Labour of love in the lab creating a COVID-19 vaccine

Health Matters: Labour of love in the lab creating a COVID-19 vaccine – Nov 30, 2020

Lewis estimated Entos would need about $50 million to develop the company’s manufacturing capacity.

The company has put profits and its own money towards that sum.

Officials also asked the federal government for grants and received some money. Lewis says little has been smooth about the process.

“We also applied for manufacturing support in June, learned in October we were successful.

“We negotiated the contract back and forth. We found out just a week ago that they’d cancelled that contract.”

Read more: Edmonton company receives federal funds to develop COVID-19 vaccine

That cancellation means the company has gone from expecting to produce between 1 and 4 million doses per day when ready to 25,000 doses per day.

Click to play video 'University of Alberta team ready to begin Phase 1 of COVID-19 vaccine testing' 3:37 University of Alberta team ready to begin Phase 1 of COVID-19 vaccine testing

University of Alberta team ready to begin Phase 1 of COVID-19 vaccine testing – Sep 28, 2020

Entos is still making vaccine strides. Lewis expects to begin phase one clinical trials within a few weeks. He says that’s good but not as good as it could have been.

“I think if the government made the investment in March 2020, we’d be in Phase 3 clinical trials right now.”

“Dozens of companies throughout Canada had a real shot at developing a vaccine within a year,” Lewis said.

“There has just been a real lack of leadership from the federal government investing in these companies.”

READ MORE: Moderna joins Pfizer in cutting back on vaccine deliveries to Canada next week

In Toronto, Providence Therapeutics CEO echoes much of what Lewis says. He too says his company needed federal support and received some but not as much as he would have liked.

“We would be in Phase 3. Back in March, we were two months behind Moderna,” said Providence CEO Brad Sorenson.

Click to play video 'Calgary-based company’s COVID-19 vaccine heading into human clinical trials' 4:09 Calgary-based company’s COVID-19 vaccine heading into human clinical trials

Calgary-based company’s COVID-19 vaccine heading into human clinical trials

Providence’s COVID-19 vaccine is currently in Phase 1 clinical trials. Sorenson hopes it will be approved for emergency use before the end of the year. Originally, he had thought it would be ready for use this summer.

Even though Providence hasn’t received everything it wanted from the federal government, Sorenson hasn’t given up on asking.

Read more: Hope, doubt loom as human clinical trials begin on Calgary-made COVID-19 vaccine

On Friday, his company sent an unsolicited request to the federal government for $150 million. The money would help the company through clinical trials and would allow it to produce 50 million doses by the end of the 2021.

Sorenson says this isn’t about simply trying to get federal money. He says it’s important to move fast on this issue and he points out when the Canadian government invests in a Canadian company, there’s far more control and security of vaccine supply — something he says is necessary when fighting COVID.

“So that becomes a national security issue. That becomes a welfare issue. You should not put that in the hands of corporations.

“I should not be responsible for managing national security. That’s kind of what people are doing right now. [They say], ‘Oh let the pharmaceutical companies take care of it.’”

Read more: Pfizer vaccine label changes could force Canada into global syringe race

In an e-mailed statement, an Industry Canada spokesperson defended the federal government’s vaccine response saying, “The government of Canada took early action to secure access to vaccine and therapy candidates for Canadians.”

The federal government highlighted the hundreds of millions of dollars spent both on securing vaccines from international suppliers and helping to develop domestic supply.

The spokesperson added, “the government continues to consider further investments in Canada’s domestic biomanufacturing sector.

“This includes the commitment in the Fall Economic Statement to ensuring that Canada is well-positioned to respond to future health emergencies and exploring ways to promote long-term sustainable growth in Canada’s biomanufacturing sector.”

READ MORE: EU publishes coronavirus vaccine contract with AstraZeneca amid dispute

Both Entos and Providence say it’s becoming more and more clear why these domestic investments are important.

Global vaccine supply doesn’t come close to meeting demand. Shortages lead to countries trying to secure as much vaccine as they can from wherever they can. The European Union is discussing export restrictions on vaccines which could further jeopardize Canadian supply.

Click to play video 'EU mulls export controls that could threaten Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine supply' 2:25 EU mulls export controls that could threaten Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine supply

EU mulls export controls that could threaten Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine supply

Pharmaceutical companies argue having domestic manufacturers supported by domestic governments could help insulate Canadians from global vaccine trade wars.

Entos’ CEO says the company will still push ahead with its vaccine but is now seeking money from international investors, which would likely influence where the final product is sold.

Lewis says he’s uncomfortable contemplating that idea but it doesn’t have to be that way if we develop domestic manufacturing.

“We need this capacity in Canada. We don’t have it.

“The investments that have been made so far won’t ensure we have it for the next pandemic.”

Brad Sorenson agrees.

“This is about basic health-care delivery. It shouldn’t be imported. It should be generated within your own borders.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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