Local company key player in homegrown vaccine

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Quebec City-based Medicago is poised to become the first Canadian company to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/04/2021 (466 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Quebec City-based Medicago is poised to become the first Canadian company to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

It is also the first in the world to use the burgeoning field of plant-derived pharmaceuticals in the fight against the coronavirus, a development that Winnipeg-based Conviron, a leading supplier of controlled environments for plant production, is already an active player in.

Conviron has been awarded a major contact from Medicago and is shipping a number of customized controlled environmental chambers to Medicago’s production facility in Durham, N.C.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Proven demonstrates a plant growth chamber at Conviron’s manufacturing facility.

As well, Conviron’s sister company, Argus Controls, is providing the controls and automation for the greenhouse component of the operation.

Whereas vaccine production typically uses chicken embryo or fertilized eggs to produce the non-infectious particles that mimic the virus that it is being targeted at, Medicago has been a pioneer in the area of using plants to grow the material needed for a particular vaccine.

In October, the Canadian government finalized a $173-million grant to Medicago to develop its COVID-19 vaccine and the company has agreed to supply Canada with 76 million doses, subject to Health Canada approval.

The company is currently in the midst of a global Phase 3 trial for which it hopes to recruit about 30,000 participants.

A spokeswoman for the company said Medicago hopes to have enough data showing the efficacy and safety of the vaccine by the end of June and then would be able to start production shortly after that.

While it may not be the largest, John Proven, president of Conviron, said it’s one of the most important projects for Conviron this year.

The company is also supplying equipment to a couple of other COVID-19 vaccine development projects, one at the University of California San Diego and another at Kentucky Bioprocessing Inc.

Proven said Conviron is glad to be part of a Canadian effort to battle the pandemic. It’s also giving the company the opportunity to scale up its technology.

He uses the analogy of the sports car.

“In the past we made precise, relatively small units that could handle tremendous variability in temperature and light, for instance,” he said. “This market is compelling us to build on the scale of buses. The performance is more about uniformity but within more narrow operating bands.”

Medicago’s facility in Durham will have the capacity to produce 80 million doses this year and twice that next year.

Carolyn Finkle, chief operating officer of Medicago, said, “Conviron’s technology is a great fit for Medicago’s plant-based vaccine technology, and we’re looking forward to working with them to increase our capacity to grow plants in our North Carolina facility.”

The company is also in the process of building a much larger production facility in Quebec City — that the federal government funding is supporting — that would have the capacity to produce one billion vaccine doses per year. That plant is scheduled to be completed by 2024.

Proven said there has been no determination as to whether or not Conviron would participate in that project, but he said there is hope that the Durham project could be a prelude to working with Medicago on the larger facility.

A Medicago spokeswoman said that in addition to recruiting participants for the Phase 3 trial in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., it is also working to establish clinical trials in a few more countries.

She said that while the timeline for production would be based on regulatory approval, the company would be ready to jump into production quickly.

“We are looking forward, pending approval, to be part of the global fight against COVID 19,” she said.

Proven said the process of growing the special tobacco plants that would produce the kind of protein needed for the vaccine takes only about one month.

Conviron and Argus’s technologies are used in varying stages of the process.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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