Quebec-based company could help Canada get back into the vaccine game

Canadian companies have been manufacturing vaccines since World War I but have not kept pace with the rapidly changing pharmaceutical industry. COVID-19 has shown that Canada needs the ability to make modern, complex vaccines and the government is working with the industry to make this happen.

Recently, the Canadian federal government has spent $173 million in order to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and build a facility to manufacture it. Medicago, a Quebec City-based company which has operations in North Carolina, will operate the new facility.

Canada used to be a world leader in vaccines but it lost its way. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed Canada’s neglect in this area and has left our country vulnerable to the disease and to the whims of other countries. Now Canada is trying to get back on top with government investment in this key industry.

Medicago, a biotechnology firm based in Quebec City, recently released some promising test results for the COVID-19 vaccine it is developing, with further trials now underway.  The goal is to get their vaccine approved and available for use as soon as possible and to make this happen, the Canadian government is spending $173 million to help with its development and to build a new facility to manufacture it.

The common COVID-19 vaccines on the market in North America are produced by Pfizer, Moderna, Astrazeneca, and Johnson and Johnson. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines which are a newer kind of vaccine made by replicating the sequence of the disease so the body can fight it. The Astrazeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines are viral vector vaccines which are made by using a different virus and modifying it. Each of these vaccines have been proven to be very effective in fighting COVID-19.

Medicago has focused on a different approach in making their vaccine — a plant-based approach.  A plant related to the tobacco plant is used as a host that allows the creation of what is known as a protein subunit vaccine. This approach has been around for some time and has produced vaccines for hepatitis and other diseases, with the key advantage being that special refrigeration is not required. In an article by NPR, Nathalie Landry, Medicago’s executive vice president for scientific and medical affairs, explained how the plant-based vaccine works. She states in the article “The plant will assemble the protein in a shape and form that is looking like the virus.” 

“So, if you look at an image of it, it looks like a virus, but it cannot induce any disease. But when [it’s] injected as a vaccine your body will raise a good immune response.” 

Medicago is behind other vaccines in getting approved for use which leads to the question of how Canada got into the position of being a laggard in vaccine development? The story starts over one hundred years ago when Canada was a world leader in vaccines.

In May of 1914, just a few months before Canada joined World War I, Connaught Laboratories in Toronto was founded by Dr. John G. FitzGerald in a horse barn in his backyard. The company was started because of a rabies outbreak in south western Ontario and the only place for treatment was in New York, so FitzGerald and another physician worked to prepare a rabies vaccine. In the years that followed, the company went on to manufacture a diphtheria antitoxin for the poor, with tetanus shots for Canadian soldiers, and insulin. 

By 1951 Connaught created a polio vaccine that became the only version used in Canada. Polio vaccines were very successful in controlling the spread of contagious viruses and diseases, so successful that it started the demise of Connaught because sales started to decline.

By the 1970’s the company was in such a weak position financially it was nationalized by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. After being nationalized, the focus of the company shifted from research and development to simply making a profit, and it fell behind other companies which had more money. Towards the late 1980’s, Connaught was privatized and today the remnants of its Toronto operations are operated by a company called Sanofi.

Besides Connaught, another Canadian company, Institut Armand Frappier, also produced vaccines, but the company was sold to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a U.K. based firm. Both of these companies still produce vaccines in Canada, but they only produce very common ones such as diphtheria and tetanus vaccines and do not manufacture COVID-19 vaccines.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many people questioned why other countries were administering vaccines faster than Canada at the beginning of 2021. Even though there are facilities in Canada used for manufacturing vaccines, they simply cannot stop making one vaccine and rework the whole plant in order to make COVID-19 vaccines.  Thus, Canada decided to invest in a broad range of vaccines mainly from European facilities in case the U.S. banned their export of vaccines. This fear was apparent because of former U.S. president Donald Trump’s desire that citizens of the U.S. would get the vaccines produced in the U.S. first. 

Canada’s inability to quickly create a COVID-19 vaccine has led to the realization that we need the capability to create and produce modern medicines domestically. The government’s investment in Medicago’s cutting-edge approach illustrates Canada’s desire to promote research and development within the country so that we can once again be a world leader in vaccines and other medicines.

Luckily, millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped to Canada and have been administered. As reported on the Government of Canada website, last updated as of June 11th 2021, the percentage of Canadians who have received at least one dose is about 61%, meaning the combined percentage of those partially and fully vaccinated. Canadians who are partially vaccinated is about 53% and those fully vaccinated is about 8%. And as of Monday June 14th 2021, Canada became the leader in 1st doses of  COVID-19 vaccines administered.

Image Credit: Pexels/Nataliya Vaitkevich

1 comment on “Quebec-based company could help Canada get back into the vaccine game

  1. Pingback: The capabilities I have demonstrated through my work in New Media Lab – Lacy Grey

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