The head of a homegrown company behind a promising COVID-19 vaccine says he’s ready to pull his company out of Canada and take its product elsewhere after calls for more substantial federal support went unanswered.
Brad Sorenson, the CEO of Calgary-based Providence Therapeutics, told CBC News he’s had enough of the “runaround” from federal and provincial governments and he’s working with the company’s board of directors to move its operations overseas to focus on developing a vaccine for people in the southern hemisphere.
“I’m moving on, that’s where I’m at now. I’ve prostrated myself at the altar of government in Canada for a year and I’ve received nothing for it. I’m tired of begging and pleading,” Sorenson said.
“I can’t tell you how much this pains me. The reality is, I can do more good for the world outside of Canada than I can in.”
Sorenson said the company will be “redomiciled” but he hasn’t settled on a country yet.
The decision could put a planned vaccine manufacturing facility in Calgary in jeopardy. The facility was to be built by Providence’s partner, Northern mRNA, and Providence was slated to be the anchor tenant.
“It’s not going to be made here in Canada. It’s not going to be prioritized for Canadians,” Sorenson said, adding the provincial government in Alberta has also “dragged its heels” on making a firm commitment to help commercialize his vaccine.
The move is a setback for the federal government’s efforts to nurture a domestic biotechnology industry. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed how being entirely dependent on foreign sources for much-needed products like vaccines makes Canada vulnerable.
‘I never asked for a single handout’
Providence, which was developing mRNA cancer vaccines before the COVID-19 crisis hit, came forward with promising data about its novel coronavirus product last March, only weeks after BioNTech and Moderna produced similarly encouraging early results for their mRNA-based vaccines.
Sorenson claimed the company’s pre-clinical trial results were “equivalent or better than these big companies that are now saving the world.”
CBC News has no way to verify this claim.
Sorenson said he believes the government picked winners and losers based on where a company was based, saying his Alberta roots may be to blame for the less-than-enthusiastic response from a government that doesn’t hold a single seat in that province.
If Providence was located in Quebec we wouldn’t be having this conversation.– Brad Sorenson
“People have said to me so many times and I refused to acknowledge it, but the truth is, if Providence was located in Quebec we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Sorenson said.
“Canada’s broken. The federal government doesn’t see past Ontario heading west.”
Pointing to a $40 million investment in Vancouver-based Precision Nanosystems, the Medicago support and a recently announced $483 million investment in pharmaceutical giant Sanofi to expand an existing Toronto vaccine plant, Sorenson said he thinks Canada’s industrial policy is based on political motivations.
“It’s pretty damn easy to figure out what their level of determination will be in regards to funding. It’s about votes,” he said.
While much of the federal funds are earmarked for companies in B.C., Ontario and Quebec, Providence and two other entities on the Prairies — Entos Pharmaceuticals in Edmonton and the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) — have also received federal support to pursue COVID-19-related vaccines or therapeutics.
Last summer, the vaccine task force — composed of doctors, researchers and former pharmaceutical executives from across the country, including Western Canada — recommended Canada sign deals with foreign companies like AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Sanofi, and the one Canadian company, Medicago.
Two of the 10 members of the vaccine task force worked as Sanofi executives, while another worked with GSK and Sanofi in a senior role. Canada has ordered up to 76 million doses from GSK-Sanofi, but that product was indefinitely delayed last year after it failed to produce sufficient results in clinical trials.
One member of the task force, Gary Kobinger — who helped develop a successful Ebola vaccine with a team in Winnipeg — resigned last fall amid concerns about the task force’s transparency and its ties to the pharmaceutical industry.