Preparing for the next pandemic

Leah Geller
April 19, 2023

The federal government announced last month a $10 million investment in five research hubs to improve Canada’s readiness for future pandemics. The hubs will accelerate development and commercialization of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, as well as expand the pipeline of available talent for this work.

The Government of Canada also launched Stage 2 of the integrated Canada Biomedical Research Fund (CBRF) and Biosciences Research Infrastructure Fund (BRIF) competition, including $570 million in funding for research, talent development, and infrastructure associated with the five hubs.

According to Dr. Allison McGeer, Infectious Disease Physician at Sinai Health in Toronto, it is a “sure thing” Canada will experience a pandemic within the next 30 years.

“The shortest gap between flu pandemics has been eight years, and the longest was 40 years. We’re now 14 years in,” she explained to Research Money in a phone interview. “Yes, we have flu vaccines, but we could still experience a very bad flu pandemic, depending on the strain.”

As for pandemics resulting from novel respiratory viruses like COVID-19, that is much harder to predict.

“We believe there was a transmissible respiratory virus spreading in the 19th century,” McGeer said, “which would lead us to believe that this kind of pandemic might happen once every 100 years. But we also know that, because of a growing population and greater human interaction with animals, there is a much higher risk for the spread of these kinds of viruses today.”

She also warns there are the kinds of pandemics that move more slowly, but can be just as destructive. That list features agents such as HIV or Candida auris, an emerging fungus which is resistant to anti-fungal therapies and is easily transmissible in hospitals and long-term care homes. While not yet affecting Canada, Candida auris is a problem in the Indian sub-continent and a growing concern in the United States.

Canada injects funding to reinvigorate biomanufacturing

Although Canada was once a world leader in vaccine production, during COVID-19 we lacked the infrastructure to produce a vaccine domestically. Our domestic biomanufacturing capacity has been in decline for over 40 years, and Canada has become increasingly reliant on vaccine imports from other countries.

In addition to the challenges of developing and commercializing vaccines, Canada is also facing a huge talent shortage for domestic biomanufacturing. BioTalent Canada’s 2021 National Report predicts that Canada’s bioeconomy will need 65,000 jobs by 2029, but only 25 percent of the available roles will be filled. This, despite Canada ranking second on the list of most educated countries in the world, just behind Korea.

In 2021, the federal government committed $2.2 billion over seven years toward Canada’s Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy, to address these gaps in research, manufacturing, and talent. The five pandemic preparedness research hubs contribute to the Strategy by helping to strengthen Canada's biomanufacturing and life sciences sector, while protecting Canadians against future health threats.

Hubs stretch across disciplines and geography

The Canadian Pandemic Preparedness Hub (CP2H), led by the University of Ottawa and McMaster University, will help Canada become competitive in the translation of biotherapeutic discoveries into clinical testing and commercialization. It will also lead training programs to address biomanufacturing talent gaps, and connect the private sector with expertise and manufacturing capacity at university research centres.

Infrastructure supporting CP2H include uOttawa’s Advanced Medical Research Centre (AMRC), which begins construction in late 2023, with planned expansions of The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre (BMC) and McMaster’s Fitzhenry Viral Vector Lab. 

Ken Lawless is Director of CP2H, and Senior Director of the Ottawa Health and Life Sciences Innovation Hub.

“We’re well-positioned to co-lead CP2H, since Ottawa is already an established centre for R&D, biomanufacturing, clinical trials, and commercialization,” he said. “We’ll be bringing together more than 45 partners from academia, industry, not-for-profits, and government to develop new therapeutics, and conduct pandemic readiness exercises with our partners.”

In Western Canada, the CBRF PRAIRIE Hub, led by the University of Alberta, will bring researchers and industry from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba together to fast-track vaccines, anti-viral compounds, and diagnostics for potential pandemic pathogens. The University of British Columbia will lead the Immuno-Engineering and Biomanufacturing Hub, which wants to position Canada as centre for immune-based treatments for future pandemic-related illness.

The Eastern Canada Pandemic Preparedness Hub (ECaPPH), led by the University of Montreal, will bring together life sciences partners in Quebec and across Atlantic Canada. It will build on the strengths of the existing ecosystem in eastern Canada, particularly in the areas of mRNA technology, vaccines, small molecule applications, and cell and gene therapy. It will also include expertise in pandemic detection and the adoption of potential solutions.

And the University of Toronto will lead the Canadian Hub for Health Intelligence and Innovation in Infectious Diseases (HI3), a multidisciplinary coalition of more than 80 partners. Among other things, it will create a rapid response network to identify new pathogens, and work with public health to target at-risk populations.

McGeer underlines the enormous importance of preparation for pandemics. In fact, she and her colleagues at Sinai Health had worked in advance of COVID-19 to prepare for a pandemic, stockpiling N95 respirators and training health care professionals and on how to move from one patient to the next.

“Pandemics feel like they’re not very likely, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to be ready for them when they come,” she said. “But nothing we did to prepare was wasted. We were infinitely better off than if we hadn’t done that work in advance.”


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