Trudeau’s promised made-in-Canada vaccine plant hasn’t produced any shots

Health Fitness

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a multi-million dollar funding commitment to build a vaccine plant in Montreal to churn out Canadian-made COVID-19 shots by the end of 2020.

Four years later, not a single vial of usable vaccine has rolled off the line.

The publicly owned Biologics Manufacturing Centre (BMC) was built quickly on National Research Council-owned land at the site of a former animal vaccines plant, thanks to a cash injection of nearly $130 million from the federal government.

While construction was mostly complete by June 2021 and certified by Health Canada as compliant with its regulations in July 2022, the taxpayer-funded facility hasn’t yet done what it was intended to do — produce vials of vaccines at scale for patient use.

Meanwhile, the National Research Council (NRC) is still bankrolling the facility with $17 million in annual funding to help keep about 100 employees working on site, according to figures provided by the NRC, the federal government’s research and development arm.

While construction of the Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montreal was mostly complete by June 2021 — and certified by Health Canada as compliant with its regulations in July 2022 — the facility hasn’t yet produced vials of vaccines at scale for patient use. (Supplied by National Research Council of Canada)

Novavax, the U.S. firm that’s expected to manufacture its shots at the BMC, told CBC News it still intends to push ahead with Canadian-made COVID vaccines despite delays.

The firm, the BMC and the NRC have repeatedly blown past supposed start dates and have told the media at various points that production would start in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Some experts are wondering whether it’s worth the effort, as COVID vaccine sales plummet worldwide and Pfizer and Moderna maintain their stranglehold on what’s left of the market.

Another COVID vaccine maker, AstraZeneca, recently pulled its product, citing a global surplus of COVID vaccines.

WATCH: Canada still without vaccine plant despite federal promises (from 2022)

Canada still without vaccine plant despite federal promises

One year after it was supposed to begin producing vaccines for Canada, the government-funded Montreal factory sits idle and continues to face regulation hurdles.

Dr. Earl Brown is a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa’s school of medicine and an expert in virology and microbiology.

Brown said there is a “niche” market for Novavax’s subunit vaccine, which uses a different technology than the mRNA products from Pfizer and Moderna.

Novavax has been able to sell some of its protein-based vaccine to patients who want an alternative to mRNA.

But Brown questions whether the mRNA-sceptic market is big enough to sustain a large operation like the BMC over the longer term.

As of February, only 37,343 Novavax shots had been administered in Canada, compared to more than 70 million Pfizer doses and about 33 million Moderna shots, according to Public Health Agency of Canada data.

Equipment in the Biologics Manufacturing Centre (BMC) in Montreal is pictured.
Specialized equipment in the Biologics Manufacturing Centre (BMC) in Montreal. (Supplied by the National Research Council)

“Can they be viable in the COVID market? Will they sell enough product to keep themselves alive? I think it’s questionable that they survive. There are two big vaccine winners and Novavax isn’t one of them,” Brown said.

“I’m very concerned when I hear about a vaccine facility that’s not pumping out products. When they sit idle, that’s a bad sign. You should be busy all the time, you should be active, current, having your staff putting out licensed product continuously.”

Brown said he supported the construction of a publicly-owned vaccine plant in the “fog of 2020” but the longer it remains in limbo, the less viable it will be.

He said the federal government may eventually get tired of pumping $17 million into a plant that’s not producing anything — or something that’s not really in high demand.

He added there’s “amnesia with pandemics in the extreme” and Ottawa may simply move on from plans to prepare the country for the next health crisis.

“It’s a bit scary when you think of other Crown corporations in the past,” he said, referring to the once world-leading Connaught Labs in Toronto that was at the forefront of vaccine development for decades before it was privatized.

“With a Crown corporation, you want them to be run off their feet. Filling supply, using fresh materials, not throwing out materials, reagents that haven’t been used for a year. And this plant — it’s really just sitting there.”

‘This is like the Apollo project’

After a failed partnership with a Chinese vaccine company, Ottawa picked Novavax to produce that company’s COVID product at the Montreal site.

In announcing the pivot to Novavax in February 2021, Trudeau said the publicly owned facility would produce tens of millions of shots by that summer.

It was billed as a way to lessen Canada’s dependence on foreign sources at a time of rapacious global competition for other products from Pfizer and Moderna.

“This is a major step forward to get vaccines made in Canada, for Canadians,” Trudeau said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters during a visit to the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) Royalmount Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre facility in Montreal, Monday, Aug 31, 2020.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters during a visit to the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) Royalmount facility on Aug 31, 2020. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Also in February 2021, Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne compared building this sort of facility — from the ground up, on a constrained timeline — to the U.S. effort to put an astronaut on the moon.

“This is like the Apollo project,” Champagne said. “Normally, it would take two to three years to do this, to get a production facility up and running.”

Three years on, it appears it will take even longer than that to get production started.

WATCH: Minister says production of COVID-19 vaccines will begin in Canada (from 2021)

Minister says production of COVID-19 vaccines will begin in Canada later this year

Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne said he expected production of the doses to begin at the Montreal-based plant in 2021.

In a media statement, a spokesperson for Novavax told CBC News the company is expected to “complete engineering runs” and move to “producing process performance qualification batches for the updated strain” of its vaccine at the BMC facility sometime in 2024.

Novavax told CBC News in 2022 it was completing the necessary “tech transfer” to the BMC site and was preparing to integrate “supply from this facility into our vaccine program.” The company also previously said it would be producing those “performance qualification batches” in early 2023.

Before COVID hit, Novavax had never actually brought a vaccine to market.

Novavax’s financial viability is an ongoing concern. Its stock dropped dramatically after it failed to make substantial inroads with its vaccine.

But earlier this month, it secured an investment from French drugmaker Sanofi, which could stabilize its operations and help get another product in development — a influenza-COVID combo vaccine — to market.

“Novavax isn’t a deep company right now. They’ve had problems with their supply line, they failed two phase 3 clinical trials with their RSV vaccine. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars lost. They’ve emptied their pockets and the company is a bit tenuous right now,” Brown said.

A spokesperson for the NRC referred all questions about the BMC and the Novavax partnership to the BMC.

A spokesperson for the BMC, which has been spun off from the government and established as an independent not-for-profit corporation, would not comment on the facility’s progress with the Novavax product.

“We will need to refer you back to Novavax as they are the sole owner of the communication for the initiative,” the spokesperson said.

A technician is seen working at the Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montreal.
A technician works at the Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montreal. (Supplied by the National Research Council)

But the spokesperson added the BMC is “on a great trajectory,” is “building its capacity and service offerings” and is engaged in “analytical testing with other partners.”

The BMC spokesperson said they could not say who the “other partners” are because they’re legally bound to keep that secret.

The federal government continues to support the facility with annual funding — to pay staff who work at a facility that could, in theory, pivot to making other, non-COVID products that Canadians need now or in the future.

The NRC provides annual funding to “ensure the facility is maintained in a good manufacturing practices readiness state and is prepared to respond to future public health emergencies,” says the NRC’s website.

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