It may seem as if Calgary-based Providence Therapeutics has burst onto the COVID-19 vaccine scene out of nowhere, but it has been working on mRNA vaccines for cancer since it was founded in 2015, and it started working on a COVID-19 vaccine in March.
While it is still early in Phase 1 of clinical trials, company CEO Brad Sorenson is extremely confident that when Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials get underway — hopefully, by May — those results will show 95 per cent efficacy, like the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
Providence is a small, privately held company — it only had 12 employees at the start of 2020 — and has not yet succeeded in getting any other pharmaceuticals onto the market, but Sorenson pointed out that Moderna, and Pfizer’s partner BioNTech, hadn’t either before their COVID-19 vaccines.
The term sheet announced on Thursday by the Manitoba government will be followed by a definitive agreement in the next few days. The province has promised to make a non-refundable payment of 20 per cent of the price. Another 40 per cent would be due when Providence gets Health Canada approval of the vaccine. The final 40 per cent would be due upon delivery.
Sorenson said he would not disclose the price. "When it is revealed what the per-dose cost is, it will be very favourable," he said.
Manitoba’s price is guaranteed not to exceed the price secured by any other government in the coming months.
The company has not yet completed its design for the next round of clinical trials, which would involve about 3,000 volunteers. It will not be a traditional double-blind trial with placebos, but a comparative trial in which half the participants receive the Providence vaccine and the other half the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
He said the expectation is that it will receive preliminary use authorization from Health Canada in the fall, but production will have already taken place.
"It will be ready to get in the arms of Manitobans the day after that approval," he said.
Even before he spoke with Manitoba officials, he was in discussions with Emergent BioSolutions about conducting the final manufacturing and filling at its Winnipeg production facility.
Emergent is a $1-billion per year Maryland-based company that acquired the Winnipeg company Cangene Corp. in 2014. Its Winnipeg operation makes hyperimmune, plasma-based therapeutics, including a botulism antitoxin and a treatment for smallpox vaccine complications. It is also developing a COVID-19 therapeutic treatment at the Winnipeg facility, which has about 400 employees.
Even if Providence does get Health Canada approval when it hopes to, the timelines seem tight. But Sorenson said Emergent can produce 500,000 doses per day.
Last week, Sorenson published an open letter to the federal government in which he sought $150 million in support to produce 50 million doses this year.
He said he doesn’t know why the federal government hasn’t shown interest in Providence’s work, but he is now in discussions with "several other provinces."
He said funding for two million doses would not be nearly that much and he said the company is prepared to go ahead even if it does not get any other take-up.
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.