In a move that could lead to friction with Ottawa, the Manitoba government has agreed to purchase two million doses of a yet-to-be-approved Canadian-made COVID-19 vaccine.
The vaccine candidate is being developed by Providence Therapeutics in Alberta and is a messenger RNA vaccine, similar to approved products developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
According to the province, the first clinical trial of the vaccine is underway and Health Canada could approve its use later this year. If approved, it would be manufactured and packaged in Winnipeg at Emergent BioSolutions at the University of Manitoba's Smartpark campus.
At a news conference Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister said "the No. 1 limiting factor" in protecting Manitobans from the coronavirus is the availability of vaccines.
"We will do everything we can to protect Manitobans from this deadly virus," he said.
Supply disruptions caused by manufacturing slowdowns at overseas facilities have recently choked the flow of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech products to Canada.
The federal government has so far controlled the distribution of vaccines in Canada.
Federal officials have suggested vaccine companies prefer to deal with national governments instead of provinces or corporations. The Trudeau government has said it came up with the fairest process possible, and pledged to distribute vaccines to each province and territory on a per capita basis, with some adjustment for vulnerable populations such as remote and Indigenous communities.
"I don't anticipate that there'd be any kind of petulance on the part of the prime minister because a premier was showing some initiative and trying to get some vaccines for the people of his province." ‐ Brian Pallister
Manitoba has long sought to secure its own supplies, and Pallister touted the province's "preliminary agreement" with Providence Therapeutics as "a made-in-Canada" solution.
He noted that health care is, constitutionally, the responsibility of provinces, and he doubted Ottawa would interfere with the purchase.
"I don't anticipate that there'd be any kind of petulance on the part of the prime minister because a premier was showing some initiative and trying to get some vaccines for the people of his province," he said.
Pallister said he has invited other premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to join Manitoba in developing a Canadian-made solution.
Manitoba will release full contract details once the agreement is finalized, he said.
The province will make a downpayment of 20 per cent of the value of the deal and pay an additional 40 per cent once the vaccine is approved by Health Canada. The rest of the money will flow upon final delivery of the vaccine orders, the premier said.
The agreement ensures Manitoba receives the first 200,000 doses of the new vaccine as soon as it is approved for sale in Canada.
The deal also guarantees that Manitoba will not pay more for the product than other governments, Pallister said.
According to the province, if the vaccine is no longer needed by the time it is available, a replacement buyer will be sought.
"If the required clinical testing is done and Health Canada approval is obtained, then I can only see an upside for Canadians to have this capacity domestically" ‐ Dr. Anand Kumar
Dr. Anand Kumar, a Winnipeg intensive care specialist with training in infectious diseases, said the technology involved in manufacturing mRNA vaccines is relatively simple.
"If the required clinical testing is done and Health Canada approval is obtained, then I can only see an upside for Canadians to have this capacity domestically," he said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew also welcomed the announcement, saying the Progressive Conservative government is "being proactive for once" during the pandemic.
The question now is whether the government can deliver on its promise, he said.
While the premier might be trying to pick a fight with Ottawa over vaccine supplies, Kinew said he hopes the federal government doesn't oblige.
"I think we need domestic vaccine production capability here in Canada, and if this helps to accomplish that, then I think that's something we should welcome and support," the Opposition leader said.
Providence's chief executive officer said the company has been talking with other provinces as well.
"I think we need domestic vaccine production capability here in Canada, and if this helps to accomplish that, then I think that's something we should welcome and support." ‐ NDP Leader Wab Kinew
"The provinces are very keen to have security of supply. They're very keen to see this made in Canada," Brad Sorenson said.
Sorenson has asked the federal government for a similar deal but has not received an answer.
In a statement, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said, "At no point has the federal government prevented provinces from undertaking their own (vaccine) procurements."
"We have secured vaccines for all Canadians who wish to be vaccinated by the end of September 2021, if not before. Canada’s shipment of the Pfizer vaccine for next week is expected to more than quadruple this week’s delivery, with shipments on track to accelerate," she said.
"Our government will continue to support domestic research, development and biomanufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines," she added.
— with files from Dylan Robertson and The Canadian Press
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.