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Medicago and Novavax | What future for the production of vaccines in the country?



The potential dismantling of Medicago and the uncertainty surrounding Novavax’s Quebec project give the impression of a false start in the race to try to restart the production of vaccines in the country. It is rather a marathon, says the industry, which warns that not everyone will cross the finish line despite the millions promised by Ottawa and Quebec.

“We agree, it’s sure that it’s a setback,” concedes Frédéric Leduc, chairman of the board of directors of BIOQuébec, which represents the interests of the Quebec industry, analyzing the news of the last few weeks.

After having seen the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi throw in the towel and announce its intention to liquidate the biopharmaceutical Medicago in February, Novavax has just added a layer. Last week, this American pharmaceutical warned investors that it could well go bankrupt during the year.


Novavax must settle in the Montreal factory of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), in Côte-Saint-Luc.

Novavax must settle in the Montreal factory of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), in Côte-Saint-Luc. Ottawa says its partnership with pharmaceuticals still holds, but seems much more fragile. As for Medicago, Quebec and Ottawa are looking for a buyer for the biopharmaceutical that has developed a plant-based vaccine against COVID-19 and was working on four other candidate vaccines, including one for seasonal flu. The suitors do not jostle at the doors.


Medicago facilities in Quebec

Will we be able to restart the production of vaccines on a large scale? In the middle, we believe that we must wait before drawing hasty conclusions. Mr. Leduc, who is also chief scientific officer at EVAH in addition to having spent a decade at Immune Biosolutions, draws a parallel with the aeronautical industry.


Frédéric Leduc, Chairman of the Board of Directors of BIOQuébec

“Developing an aircraft and having it certified takes years,” says the scientific entrepreneur. But once it’s done, there are repercussions for decades. It’s a bit the same principle for biofabrication. Building capacity takes three to five years. There are a lot of things going on that are going to materialize over the next two or three years. You have to be patient. »

A push

There are challenges for the pharmaceutical industry in the country. The population (39 million) makes it difficult to get a significant return on research investment to develop and produce drugs or vaccines. It is in this context that governments have loosened the purse strings as the pandemic has shone a light on gaps in biomanufacturing.

Alone, since the start of the health crisis, the federal government says it has devoted more than 1.8 billion to fund 33 projects nationwide. Quebec obtained some 450 million to finance 11 projects, including those of Medicago (173 million) and Novavax.

In Quebec, the government’s life sciences strategy provides for the distribution of $375 million by 2025, in particular to strengthen the province’s manufacturing capacity.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Novavax, there appear to be alternative options on the table, according to Laurie Bouchard, spokesperson for Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne.

“The NRC plant was designed to attract business,” she explains. If it’s not them [Novavax], it could be someone else. »

Mme Bouchard, however, did not specify whether other options are being studied.

However, there are more encouraging signals. Work on the Moderna plant – which received 25 million from the Legault government and a supply guarantee from the Trudeau government – ​​is underway. In Ontario, Sanofi is still counting on a production site for influenza vaccines. There are also “other announcements” that are planned by the Trudeau government, says Bouchard. On March 2, Mr. Champagne also met with the senior management of the giant Pfizer in New York.


Frank Béraud, President and CEO of Montreal InVivo

At Montréal InVivo, which represents Greater Montréal’s life sciences and health technologies cluster, President and CEO Frank Béraud points out that setting up manufacturing capacity in the life sciences niche is a “long-term” project. It is therefore to be expected that there will be “pitfalls on the way”.

“As with any innovation and technological development project, there is a risk of failure,” says Mr. Béraud. There are always imponderables. What’s happening with Medicago and Novavax are business decisions. This does not call into question our capacity or our know-how in Quebec. That’s what reassures me. »

Weak link

The Quebec life sciences sector has picked up the slack in the past decade. When Anie Perrault was appointed Executive Director of BIOQuébec in 2013, the organization had 40 member companies. When she left last year, there were 175, says the one who is still a consultant for BIOQuébec.

Currently Chair of the Board of Directors of Génome Québec, Perrault recognizes that there is work to be done in terms of production to have a “solid chain”.


Anie Perrault

Otherwise, we take the risk that production will be done elsewhere. The sector is going to be only as strong as its weakest link. We are strong in university research and we are able to fund. We worked a lot upstream, now we have to work downstream.

Anie Perrault, Chair of the Board of Directors of Génome Québec and Consultant for BIOQuébec

Mme Perrault also warns that the success of the biomanufacturing strategy relies on diversification. The evolution of the pandemic situation has clearly illustrated, she explains, that it is not only necessary to focus on vaccines against COVID-19, but also “other fields”. The producers’ platform must be “much broader”, believes Mme Perrault.

Learn more

  • 11
    Number of biomanufacturing projects financially supported in Quebec by the federal government

    Source: Government of Canada

    75 million
    Amount lent to Medicago by Quebec. The sum will be refunded if the company disappears.

    Source: Government of Quebec

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