On May 20, Chancellor Calin Rovinescu hosted a conversation to explore why Canada can’t produce its own COVID-19 vaccines, as well as what needs to change so that Canada can capitalize on its research, be better prepared for the next pandemic and drive progress to defeat other diseases.
The event, part of the Chancellor’s Debate series, was titled “Time for Canada to win at Biotechnology, Especially Vaccines.” It featured Rovinescu in conversation with Dr. John Bell, Faculty of Medicine professor and Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) senior scientist. The discussion was moderated by Dane Bedward, a member of the University of Ottawa’s Board of Governors and former senior vice-president of Genzyme Corporation.
During the discussion, Bell shared his perspectives on vaccine development, based on more than 30 years of biomedical research and entrepreneurial experience. He is a global pioneer in the discovery and development of oncolytic viruses, a novel class of targeted cancer therapeutics, and knows firsthand the complexities of getting therapies from “bench to bedside”.
This conversation was particularly timely given uOttawa’s soon-to-be-built Advanced Medical Research Centre, which will be located on the Roger Guindon campus and foster collaboration between scientists, clinicians, entrepreneurs and government.
The new space will provide hundreds of researchers and trainees with access to cutting-edge resources. At its heart will be the Ottawa Health Innovation Hub, which will have dedicated incubation and accelerator facilities to fast-track research and bring new treatments and therapeutics to market sooner.
Here are some questions and answers from this discussion with Bell (edited for brevity).
Why doesn’t Canada have a vaccine industry at this time?
This virus responsible for the current pandemic is called SARS-CoV-2. It’s called “CoV-2” because this is the second SARS virus. In 2003, almost 20 years ago, the first SARS virus came through here and we were woefully unprepared. We didn’t have a vaccine or a drug for it, and we got lucky that it was as contained as it was.
So really, that was a wake-up call. We needed to build the infrastructure and create a vaccine industry so we could take care of ourselves. This isn’t finger pointing at any specific government. It has been a chronic problem for every government — we rely too much on other people to take care of us. Now more than ever, we need to think about this problem and have a strategy moving forward — not just subsidize a few Band-Aids.
What will it take for Canada to lead in this area?
The struggle here is that it’s a continuum. You start with fundamental research, scientists who are curiosity driven and who find and make discoveries. You then pair these people with scientists who take this academic idea and convert it into something that has more practical applications.
Once a discovery is made, we need people who know how to take something from the lab and convert it into something that can be manufactured. Then you have clinicians who are interested in these products, who want to understand and test them in people and do clinical trials. It’s in clinical trials that we see what products are not working and which ones can be improved. It’s an iterative process, so you really need to have engaged clinicians.
Ultimately, you want to get a venture capitalist, biotech investors of all sorts to say, “Ok, you’ve got something that looks good. Let’s take the risk and see if we can make this into a real medicine and put money into that.” In the end, a pharma company will get involved. These are international companies that can turn the discovery into something that can be marketed. We could potentially do this in Canada if we had enough know-how and interest in doing that.
It’s a very complex ecosystem, and you can’t just add money at one end or the other and hope that it’s going to work. You have to fund this across the board. You have to build the infrastructure and the community to make this happen.
What allowed the COVID-19 vaccine to be released so fast and could this cause health risks for people who received the vaccine?
I hear this question all the time and I think we really need to address it. It was done quickly, but safely, because we put resources behind it. Vaccines take long to develop, normally, because we don’t put money behind them. Here we were, in a global emergency, and resources were put behind Pfizer and AstraZeneca to rapidly get their vaccines out and tested right away.
These vaccines have been around for a long time, and they have been tested on people before this pandemic. This specific sequence in them from the SARS virus is more recent. So, we really understood how these vaccines would work and we understood how to do the tests quickly and in large numbers to get them out there.
This was a great example of how things can be done quickly if we are willing to put the resources behind it.
The uOttawa Chancellor’s Debate is held twice yearly, in the fall and in the spring. The formats and topics vary, from panel discussions to one-on-one interviews to classic head-to-head debates, depending on the topic and the guests. Topics can include foreign affairs, innovation and economic growth, or justice and social policy. The chancellor attends and participates in each event.