In 2021, the Government of Canada made a historic investment to strengthen the domestic biomanufacturing sector and build preparedness for future pandemics. The goal is to achieve self-sufficiency while reducing supply chain challenges.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated both opportunities and vulnerabilities within Canada’s biomanufacturing sector. Currently, we rank fourth as a biosciences hub — behind Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America — thanks to decades’ worth of contributions made by major biotech companies such as Sanofi Pasteur, Medicago, and Resilience Biotechnologies, just to name a few.
Sanofi Pasteur, in particular, made significant progress after acquiring what was left of the historic Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories, located at the University of Toronto. A global vaccine pioneer in its heyday, Connaught contributed to the discovery of insulin, the polio vaccine, as well as new vaccines against influenza and measles, which played a role in the eradication of smallpox. Today, Sanofi continues to operate the Connaught campus in Toronto, where it develops the diphtheria and tetanus vaccine, as well as other products on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.
However, according to Dr. Earl Brown, Professor Emeritus at the University of Ottawa’s school of medicine, the facility simply could not be repurposed in time to accommodate the production of the COVID-19 vaccine. Despite our achievements, therefore, we ultimately lacked the infrastructure to produce a made-in-Canada vaccine.
At the start of the millennium, many biopharmaceutical companies underwent global restructuring to consolidate their operations, which meant moving into new/existing markets beyond Canada. As a result, we became increasingly reliant on vaccine imports from countries that had the capacity to produce them for us.
To address these issues, the 2021 federal budget saw the government committing $2.2B over seven years toward Canada’s Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy.
Announced in July 2021, this strategy outlines five pillars to success:
This strategy positions Canada to make significant advances in the immediate future toward supporting infrastructure development, research and development (R&D), emergent technologies, end-to-end processes, and clinical trials based on a coordinated effort between academic institutions, companies, the Tri-agencies, government, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).
Biomanufacturing is more than just processes, equipment, and end products — it’s also the skilled workers. Canada is already facing a huge talent shortage for existing infrastructure, let alone recent investments and commitments to build more in the future. BioTalent Canada’s 2021 National Report predicts that Canada’s bioeconomy needs 65,000 jobs by 2029 — this includes 16,140 biomanufacturing workers and 5,160 in bio-health manufacturing alone. At this pace, it is predicted only 25% of the available roles will be filled.
At the same time, Canada ranks second on the list of most educated countries in the world behind Korea, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Of the 61% of Canadians who have graduated with a tertiary qualification, 4.8 million hold a degree related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or healthcare, indicating a potential talent pool for medical and chemical engineering companies.
Immigrants will also be key to meeting this labour demand, with net migration likely to reach 86% by 2029. As well, women represent roughly one-third (34%) of Canada’s bioeconomy workers overall which, in conjunction with the foreseeable labour shortage, presents ample opportunities to gain ground in an increasingly STEM-oriented labour market.
With that said, Canada needs to ensure that new skills and talent are aligned with the significant investments that are being put into this sector — and that these efforts will be sustainable moving forward. The need for GMP (Goods and Manufacturing Practices) certified talent is now. The creation of relevant content and accessibility to upskilling/reskilling for current employees is crucial to redeploy trained talent.
Academic institutions need to pivot to ensure they are creating and delivering curriculum and offering training opportunities that are vital in producing trained talent in this space. Internationally, there is a strong appetite for a standardized approach to ensure continuity, as well as coordination of knowledge and resources.
We know that it is going to take a team approach to rebuild Canada’s flexible and resilient biomanufacturing capacity — industry, academia, hospitals, public health, and government — to become a global leader.
Canada has been working on maximizing domestic capacity since before the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years, we have invested more than $1.2B into biomanufacturing, vaccine, and therapeutics projects that are underway. Moreover, earlier this year, the federal government invested $415 million to support Sanofi in building an influenza vaccine manufacturing facility in Toronto, Ontario. In a similar vein, Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company Moderna is negotiating with the federal government to build an mRNA vaccine production plant in Canada, marking its first foreign operation to date.
COVID-19 vaccines have saved Canadian lives and helped us all to start getting back to normal. Moderna’s plans to establish a state-of-the-art vaccine facility here in Canada is a key move in our plan to grow a strong, competitive domestic life sciences sector with cutting-edge biomanufacturing capabilities. This will make sure Canada is prepared for future pandemics and other health emergencies, strengthen our economy and create good jobs for Canadians. – The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry
As of October 2021, Canada has already procured or entered into agreements to purchase up to 404 million doses of vaccines from both international and domestic sources — once we have ramped up to production. Domestic consumption of vaccines/therapeutics, meanwhile, has jumped from $473M in 1997 to an astronomical $4.8B in 2019.
As vaccine deliveries outstrip demands, Maryland-based biotech company Novavax is planning to produce a first-of-its-kind COVID-19 vaccine at the Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montréal. If approved by Health Canada, the company is expected to deliver 24 million doses per year, making Montréal the first Canadian city to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine.
Additionally, on December 6, 2021, the federal government announced a $19M capital investment in the local production of molnupiravir — an investigational oral antiviral drug that can treat COVID-19. Merck Canada and Thermo Fisher Scientific have signed an agreement to manufacture the pills for global distribution in Whitby, Ontario. The Ontario facility will be one of three locations in the world to produce the drug. This investment is expected to create 50 high-paying jobs in the region and generate millions of dollars in export revenue.
But as we continue to build biomanufacturing infrastructure, the talent gap looms. By prioritizing Canada’s diverse bioeconomy sooner rather than later, by investing in training and talent, we will be closer to developing innovative solutions that benefit both our economy and our people.