In the early days of the pandemic, the federal government announced a multi-million-dollar funding agreement with the National Research Council (NRC) to expand a vaccine facility in Montreal — a site Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said would pump out Canadian-made COVID-19 shots by November 2020.
Two years after the prime minister made that pledge, the NRC facility still hasn’t produced a single vial of a COVID-19 vaccine.
A spokesperson for the NRC, the federal entity dedicated to research and development, told CBC News its vaccine facility recently secured the necessary Health Canada approvals. But the NRC still offered no target date for when the biologics manufacturing centre (BMC) will be operational.
“The inspection by Health Canada took place in late July 2022 and the facility has been rated as compliant,” the NRC spokesperson said.
The spokesperson referred questions about vaccine production to Novavax, the Maryland-based company that was tapped by Ottawa to make COVID-19 shots at the facility.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Novavax said the company “continues to work with the NRC to complete the tech transfer of our COVID-19 vaccine” and it anticipates “integrating supply from this facility into our vaccine program” at an unspecified later date.
While announcing a $44-million investment for the NRC facility in April 2020, Trudeau said expanding this site and others would put Canada “at the forefront of scientific research” and give the country the “infrastructure to prepare vials for individual doses as soon as a vaccine becomes available.”
In August of that year, the government pumped an additional $126 million into the NRC’s Royalmount site, a federal investment that Trudeau said would “enable the preliminary production of 250,000 doses of vaccine per month starting in November 2020.”
But when November 2020 came, Trudeau conceded there wouldn’t be any shots rolling off the line as planned. The project’s initial timeline was derailed by construction delays and a failed deal with a Chinese vaccine maker.
In February 2021, as Canada was grappling with limited vaccine supply, Trudeau claimed that the NRC’s facility would finish construction sometime that summer — and that shots would soon follow.
“We expect the facility to be up and running by mid-2021,” Trudeau said.
In an interview with CBC News at the time, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne compared building this sort of facility from the ground up on such a constrained timeline to the U.S. mission to put a man on the moon.
“This is like the Apollo project,” Champagne said. “Normally, it would take two to three years to do this, to get a production facility up and running.”
WATCH: Industry minister said production of COVID-19 vaccines would start in 2021
With Pfizer and Moderna facing insatiable demand for their products at this early stage of the immunization campaign, Trudeau’s announcement and Champagne’s optimism were welcome news for Canadians concerned about a dearth of shots.
Asked to comment Friday, Champagne’s office said he wasn’t available for an interview.
Trudeau also announced in February 2021 the government’s partnership with Novavax, a company that, before COVID-19, had never actually brought a vaccine to market.
This U.S. outfit, Trudeau said, would churn out tens of millions of its shots at the Montreal site. “This is a major step forward to get vaccines made in Canada, for Canadians,” he said.
WATCH: In 2021, Trudeau is questioned about Novavax COVID-19 vaccine deal
Dr. Earl Brown is a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa’s school of medicine and an expert in virology and microbiology. He said the government’s timeline for starting production was “completely unrealistic.”
“These things are just really complicated to build. There’s just so much regulation — it’s extreme. So I think it was crazily optimistic,” he said.
“You need two years, at a minimum, to build any new facility. I didn’t believe any of those numbers when I first heard them.”
Brown said another major vaccine production project in Canada — a $925-million expansion of French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi’s Toronto campus — has a five-year timeline, with production expected to start sometime in 2027.
An optimistic timeline
“The leading vaccine producer in the world gave themselves five years and they do this all the time,” Brown said, adding that the government should have anticipated that a relatively untested company like Novavax would need more time.
Once a world-leader in vaccine development and production, Canada’s manufacturing capability has been hollowed out after decades of cuts and mismanagement. The government has said little lately about the NRC facility it once touted as a solution to the country’s vaccine woes.
The NRC quietly announced in June 2021 that the site had finished construction on time — an impressive achievement that came just ten months after the first shovels hit the ground.
But in the world of biomanufacturing, construction is just one of many hurdles an entity must clear before it can start churning out sensitive products like a COVID-19 vaccine or another therapeutic.
Such a company must satisfy a series of industry and regulatory requirements before vaccines or biologics can be manufactured safely.
‘Were they too ambitious?’
Marc-André Gagnon, an associate professor at Carleton University and an expert on the pharmaceutical industry, said the government made its promise to build the NRC site during an “emergency situation” and the 2021 production start date was likely its best-case scenario.
“They had to be ambitious. The question is, were they too ambitious? Some voices say that they were. We didn’t know in 2020 when vaccines would be available but we probably knew that a facility like this wouldn’t be ready before the end of 2021, for sure,” he told CBC News.
Gagnon said that, despite the delays, Royalmount is a welcome addition to Canada’s manufacturing landscape. He said a developed country like Canada needs a publicly owned — and domestic — source of vaccines to avoid the mad scramble that defined the early COVID-19 vaccine procurement process.
“Canada used to be a hub for vaccine manufacturing. We were world-class. We need biomanufacturing capacity for the next thing, the next pandemic,” he said.
“And let me emphasize this — we need more public manufacturing capacity to discipline the private market a little bit and avoid predatory pricing.”
NDP MP Don Davies, the party’s health critic, agreed that some sort of public option for vaccine production is prudent but the government’s handling of the NRC facility has been “a major failure.”
He said it suggests Ottawa has a “serious credibility issue.”
“We are two years plus into this pandemic and we still aren’t producing a single dose of a vaccine in this country. It’s a policy fail, an accountability fail and a credibility fail,” he said in an interview with CBC News.
“The prime minister said publicly in August 2020 that we’d be producing vaccines at the Montreal facility. That was either highly irresponsible, or incompetent, or it was deceptive. I don’t know which of the three it is but Canadians know — we had a direct, clear promise from the prime minister about vaccines being produced here in Canada at a time when we were all on pins and needles.
“He was either misinformed or he was misleading. He has a duty to come clean with Canadians.”
Conservative MP Michael Barrett, the party’s health critic, was equally scathing in his assessment of the government’s vaccine track record.
In a statement, Barrett said the “Trudeau Liberals spent millions of dollars on their promises to produce vaccines domestically, and after two years they have missed every deadline with nothing to show for it.”