MONTREAL — A Montreal facility that’s being outfitted to mass-produce COVID-19 vaccines will become Canada’s long-term centre of vaccine production after the pandemic, bringing back a sector that’s been dormant for decades and locating it in Quebec, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.
“We’re going to have domestic capacity after this summer,” said Trudeau in a press conference.
He confirmed that Canada has struck two new deals with vaccine companies: Novavax, based in Maryland, and Precision NanoSystems, based in Vancouver.
The government announced last August that the Royalmount vaccine facility — already in use for similar science by the National Research Council — would get multimillion-dollar renovations allowing it to mass-produce COVID-19 vaccines. It remains unclear exactly which vaccines will be produced at the site.
In an email to CTV News, NRC spokesperson Karyne Vienneau said construction of the facility is on schedule to be completed at the end of July 21, but a timeline for when it will become operational “depends on reaching a full production agreement with an approved vaccine producer and Health Canada approval of the manufacturing process for the specific product. The memorandum of understanding announced today is a constructive step towards reaching such a production agreement.”
Trudeau called it “a win on all fronts,” saying that “we are protecting people today and we are supporting good jobs for years to come.”
He struck a less optimistic note when discussing why the government is so eager to reinvest in vaccine production, referencing the new variants of COVID-19 and the risk of future pandemics.
“We don’t know what the future looks like a year from now, two years from now, three years from now,” he said.
Canada isn’t, in fact, relying on the Montreal facility to take over its supply of currently needed vaccine, Trudeau said. The facility won’t be finished its transformation until the end of the summer — the same point by which Ottawa has predicted it will have mostly finished its vaccination drive.
Trudeau said this plan doesn’t change Canada’s other contracts with companies like Pfizer and Moderna, and that Ottawa is standing by its previously announced commitment to vaccinate all Canadians who want vaccines by September 2021.
“Canada will be developing domestic manufacturing.. on top of all our contracts and partnerships signed with companies around the world,” he said.
Vienneau noted that even after Health Canada approves a vaccine candidate for production, several steps will then need to be followed before the site can begin production. Those steps include obtaining the technology necessary to make a specific vaccine, ensuring the process put in place will produce that vaccine at a high quality and having Health Canada conduct regulatory checks.
“Initial engineering runs at the Biologics Manufacturing Centre are targeted for December, 2021, with full production runs to follow shortly after,” she said.
A Montreal-based infectious diseases expert said the announcement is excellent news, medically speaking.
“There’s this recurring theme,” said Dr. Matthew Oughton of McGill.
“And that is, on one hand, Canada has a relatively good health-care system, but on the other hand doesn’t have a manufacturing system to meet the needs that have arisen because of this pandemic.”
Canada had a robust vaccine manufacturing sector until the 1970s, Oughton said, when the big players left the country.
Canada still has vast technical know-how, just not the production capability, he said.
“Just knowing how to do isn’t enough. You have to be able to do it as well,” Oughton said.
Doing so “means that we have a supply that is predictable, and we’re not going to see potential obstacles like it being held up like we’ve seen with vaccines from Europe, for example.”
–With files from CTV’s Billy Shields