Canadian biomanufacturing company says Ottawa passed on its offer to produce COVID-19 vaccine

The president of a Canadian biomanufacturing company is offering to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine just as soon as he and his team are asked, but the federal government says it has already picked the best candidates.

“We’re very willing and happy to help Canada make anything,” Donald Gerson, president of Montreal-based PnuVax Inc., told CTV’s Power Play on Tuesday. “We’ve got a good-sized factory here. It’s got lots of capabilities. We’d be very, very pleased to help and make as much as we possibly could for Canada’s benefit.”

On Tuesday, The Globe and Mail reported that PnuVax has not received any federal investment to produce a COVID-19 vaccine or therapy, despite its experience and sizable facilities. Instead, the government chose a public lab that has pushed back its timeline for being ready to manufacture the first doses of a vaccine from November, 2020, to some time after mid-2021.

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Dr. Gerson would not confirm whether PnuVax was invited to participate in the government’s COVID-19 strategy, or whether his company submitted a proposal. Companies that submitted proposals sign nondisclosure agreements.

Industry Minister Navdeep Bains’ office would not comment on whether PnuVax applied. In a statement, the minister’s office wrote that “every firm that has stepped forward was carefully assessed. Several other options were assessed to be more promising.”

Next door to PnuVax’s building in Montreal, at the government-owned National Research Council (NRC), Ottawa earlier this year committed $170-million to upgrade existing labs and to build a new vaccine-production facility.

The NRC was originally tapped to produce doses of a vaccine candidate under development by Chinese company CanSino. On Tuesday, the Globe reported that a government-appointed vaccine task force actually recommended against that deal, although after it had been approved. Mr. Bains’ office said in a statement that the vaccine task force supported the CanSino project in June, but that their advice changed “as more data became available.”

During Question Period on Tuesday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole asked Prime Minister why Ottawa stuck with CanSino despite advice from his own task force. “Why did the Prime Minister favour a made-in-China solution instead of the made-in-Canada solution their own experts were demanding?” Mr. O’Toole asked.

Mr. Trudeau said “every step of the way we leaned on our experts, on the immunity task force and on the vaccination task force, to make recommendations on what we should do to ensure a solid supply of potential vaccines to Canadians.”

The CanSino deal was eventually scrapped and the NRC turned its focus to producing a vaccine candidate like the one put forward by AstraZeneca. The government hopes the first doses produced by the NRC will be available by next summer.

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Dr. Gerson said the technology underlying that vaccine is familiar to his company. “I know enough about the AstraZeneca process that we could probably make it here,” he said. He added later: “Someone just has to ask.”

PnuVax has worked with the government of Canada before. In 2014, PnuVax and a Toronto-based company were chosen to produce antibodies for a made-in-Canada treatment for Ebola called ZmAb. PnuVax delivered the antibodies on time. “We delivered the goods, so we’re happy to do that,” Dr. Gerson said.

Neither company was chosen for future work. Canada did not produce large quantities of ZmAb.

Dr. Gerson previously was vice-president of manufacturing at Connaught Labs, a vaccine producer once owned by the federal government.

In 2010, Canada cancelled a planned development project for an HIV vaccine after concluding that no company met the requirements to develop and produce it. When the House of Commons health committee studied the matter, Dr. Gerson was called to give expert testimony. “To say without a lot of detailed explanation that no one in Canada is capable of doing such a thing really is self-depreciating in Canada,” Dr. Gerson told the committee.

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