Canada needs the Connaught model of domestic vaccine production

Posted on March 20, 2021 in Health Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Business/Opinion
March 20, 2021.  

The path to Canadian vaccine sovereignty will be long and arduous.

In a determined effort to achieve self-sufficiency in vaccine production, Canada is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in scores of vaccine-related companies and non-profit research centres.

With few exceptions, the COVID-19 vaccine candidates of those companies and research centres are of unproven safety and efficacy.

If they do prove themselves in clinical trials, most of the facilities to manufacture the vaccines are still in the planning stage, with just one under construction.

And any Health Canada-approved COVID-19 vaccines that result from the federal effort will not be available until late this year or early 2022.

Justin Trudeau is committed to repatriating Canadian vaccine production.

“Canada will be developing domestic manufacturing [of vaccines], so regardless of what could happen in the future, we will have domestic production,” the PM has vowed.

Note that word “repatriating.” Canada was once a world leader in both vaccine development and mass production. We allowed that capability to slip away long ago. More on that later.

Ottawa has promised that all Canadians willing to be vaccinated will get at least their first jab by July.

For that to happen, we have to hope that Europe, Ottawa’s chosen sole source of vaccines, will not impose on Canada the vaccine export controls by which European countries have been withholding or threatening to block exports of vaccine supplies among each other.

Meanwhile, Canada ranks 36th in per capita vaccinations among countries with more than one million population.

Last weekend, Ontario reported that in March, Ottawa will provide it with less than one-third the number of vaccine doses that the province is capable of administering.

“With the uncertainty surrounding a steady supply of vaccines, it’s clear we need to start production of COVID vaccines right here in Canada,” Doug Ford has said.

The Ontario premier is an expert on what Ottawa now calls “in-sourcing” of essential supplies.

Early in the pandemic’s first wave, last spring, Ford called on the Ontario auto-parts sector to quickly convert to making ventilators and other emergency medical supplies.

The largely Canadian-owned auto-parts firms came through with flying colours, their employees knowing that they were engaged in protecting the lives of fellow Canadians.

That has been a pandemic lesson in the life-and-death importance of local ownership and local decision-making.

Of necessity, Canada has quickly become self-sufficient in a great many medical supplies that were long ago offshored.

But on COVID-19 vaccines, we remain at the mercy of offshore suppliers, which include Britain, the U.S., China, India and Russia.

To be sure, Ottawa has many irons in the fire on achieving vaccine sovereignty.

But Ottawa’s partnership with U.S.-based Novavax won’t yield a made-in-Canada vaccine until early 2022. Its deal with Precision NanoSystems Inc., of Vancouver, aims for a vaccine by about the same time.

And a promising vaccine candidate at Medicago Inc., of Quebec City, if approved, won’t be available until 2023 or 2024.

To be sure, there is long-term benefit to those projects, even if Canada will, with luck, be past the third wave of the pandemic by the time any Canadian-produced vaccines become available.

Every major vaccine in history has been continually upgraded and refined. Though the made-in-Canada vaccines will be latecomers, they will have the advantage of real-life experience from earlier vaccines.

The Canadian vaccine producers are likely to engineer their vaccines to better protect, for instance, children, pregnant women and Canadians exposed to the COVID-19 variants.

And, of course, Canada will have regained at least some proficiency in vaccine invention and production.

Which simply brings us back full circle.

For seven decades prior to the late 1980s, Toronto-based Connaught Laboratories Ltd. was a global leader in vaccine development and production.

Connaught is still best known for its mass production of insulin, discovered at the University of Toronto in 1921.

But the publicly owned, non-profit Connaught also invented and mass-produced affordable treatments and vaccines for the deadly scourges of diphtheria, typhoid, tetanus, meningitis and polio. And Connaught’s scientists helped advance the breakthroughs in penicillin and the eradication of smallpox.

By the time it was sold, in a late-1980s privatization drive by then-PM Brian Mulroney to what is now France’s Sanofi S.A., Connaught was exporting to 124 countries.

It would next be the turn of Montreal vaccine maker Institut Armand Frappier (IAF), named for a trail-blazing Canadian scientist in tuberculosis treatment, to pass from Canadian hands and cease to be a force in vaccine R&D.

In the late 1980s, and renamed as BioChem Pharma, the firm’s Montreal researchers developed the breakthrough HIV/AIDS treatment 3TC (Epivir), which became the world standard in HIV/AIDS treatment.

But in 2000, BioChem was sold to what is now British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC.

GSK and Sanofi maintain only limited vaccine production in Canada, and aren’t capable of mass-producing a pandemic vaccine.

Connaught was.

The untold story of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine is that breakthrough chemical formulations that advanced his work were developed by Connaught, which supplied them to Salk at his University of Pittsburgh laboratories.

The later U.S. rollout of Salk’s vaccine was abruptly suspended early in the 1950s polio crisis when a few batches of commercially produced Salk vaccine, improperly tested by a California manufacturer, led to the vaccine causing polio cases.

By contrast, every batch of the mass-produced Connaught vaccine was scrupulously tested by Canadian federal authorities. Ottawa had decided against the U.S. practice of delegating inspection to the manufacturers.

And there being no reported problems with it, Connaught used the Salk vaccine it helped invent to quickly vaccinate the entire country.

Christopher Rutty, a medical historian and adjunct professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says a key, if not the key, to the success of the Salk vaccine across North America was Connaught’s seamless vaccine research, development, clinical trials and production process.

Rutty advocates the creation — or re-creation — in Canada of an end-to-end vaccine producer like Connaught to better protect us against future infectious disease threats. And, like Jagmeet Singh, the federal NDP leader, he would like to see it publicly owned or oriented.

A properly restored Canadian global powerhouse in vaccines would improve on the current world patchwork of players focused on discovery, clinical trials, safe packaging, mass production and a dozen other disciplines, layered over by conflicting priorities of national governments.

That model conflicts with Ottawa’s current $1-billion national vaccine strategy. The strategy is feeding dollops of funding to scores of vaccine-related firms and agencies with a minimum of co-ordination. And it creates no Connaught-like concentration of best practices.

We’re going to need the Connaught model.

At this writing, the pandemic has taken 22,576 lives in Canada, and an estimated 2.7 million lives worldwide.

It’s tough to argue that the current, semichaotic system of global vaccination management has performed to anyone’s satisfaction.

It’s tough to argue that the current, semichaotic system of global vaccination management has performed to anyone’s satisfaction.


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