Senator urges Ottawa to support Canadian vaccine company awaiting funding

OTTAWA — An Alberta senator is urging Ottawa to fund a Canadian company so it can develop a domestic COVID-19 vaccine to lessen the risk Canadians will have wait in a line on a foreign-made pandemic cure.

"I really do believe that we need to keep the pressure now on the government of Canada, whom I'm not criticizing. I get that this is an unusual time. And this may be in hand, or it may have fallen through the cracks. But we can't allow that to happen," Sen. Doug Black said in an interview Monday.

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"I'm not criticizing anybody. But I will be criticizing people if they don't see this an opportunity to potentially protect Canadians."

Black was adding his voice to those of numerous health professionals who are questioning why the Trudeau government has yet to make a decision on the $35-million proposal to fund Providence Therapeutics.

Providence has told the government it could deliver five million doses of its new mRNA vaccine by mid-2021 for use in Canada if it were able to successfully complete human testing.

Providence's chief executive Brad Sorenson told The Canadian Press he has not heard back from the government since late May after his company submitted its proposal in April, and after the government reached out to it as a possible vaccine-maker.

The mRNA technology is new and untested, but Black and others say it has potential.

They point to the billions of dollars that two other companies have received from the U.S. government to pursue research using the same new approach that involves using a key fragment of genetic material instead of working with an inactive sample of live virus.

The American firm Moderna began a 30,000-person human trial on Monday after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. government.

Last week, the U.S. committed to pay Germany's BioNTech and its American partner Pfizer $1.95 billion to produce 100 million doses if their vaccine candidate proves safe and effective in humans.

"I see the commitment that's being made by the European and American governments to this identical technology and I'm saying, 'Hmm, why in the name of goodness aren't we pursuing this aggressively in Canada?'" said Black.

"No stone should be left unturned in pursuit of a made-in-Canada COVID solution."

Health-care professionals have also written to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains to urge him to make up his mind.

Bains spokesman John Power has said he couldn't comment on specific proposals, but said the evaluation process is ongoing.

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam told a press conference on Friday that the mRNA technology is a newer, experimental technology "but completely worthy of being part of the actual analysis which is being undertaken and will be considered as part of the investment portfolio."

The federal government has created a $600-million fund to support vaccine clinical trials and manufacturing inside Canada.

Black along with several health experts point to the hold-up in one project that Canada has already funded: the partnership between China's CanSino Biologics and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

The program has been sidetracked because China has held up shipments of the vaccine that it was supposed to send to Dalhousie researchers by the end of May to start human trials.

Canada-China relations are severely strained after the People's Republic imprisoned two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in apparent retaliation for the RCMP's arresting Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant in December 2018.

Black said he became aware of Providence's research earlier this winter. He said he followed up with the company last week, and was stunned to learn the project appeared stalled.

Now that the issue has received publicity, Black said he believes the government will respond quickly.

"My guess is that the government will see its way clear to supporting these trials. I don't see why they wouldn't, right?" he said.

"Job No. 1 of a government is to protect its citizens. This falls very much into the basket of protecting your citizens."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2020.

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