A centre that can develop up to 40 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines a year has opened in Saskatoon, and officials say it may soon export vaccines throughout North America and Europe.
The University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization has completed construction of its Level 3 containment facility, considered to be the largest in Canada.
It is able to manufacture both human and animal vaccines for dangerous viruses.
"We have the ability to work with these pathogens, discover, develop new vaccines, and then also manufacture them in-house, and that saves time, and time is very important during a pandemic," CEO and director Volker Gerdts said Tuesday.
When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic two years ago by the World Health Organization, such a facility was unfathomable in Canada, said Gerdts.
"During the pandemic, we relied on other countries to make vaccines for us. Now we're changing that, and we're building capacity ... to make in the future vaccines in Canada for Canadians."
If this facility existed early in the pandemic, lives could have been saved, said Daniel Vandal, the federal minister responsible for Prairies Economic Development Canada.
"It became very clear early on we needed some Canadian production of vaccines when COVID hit. We went through a couple of years that was very difficult," Vandal said.
Gerdts said talks are underway with several companies in hopes of making their COVID-19 vaccinations in Saskatchewan.
Any commercial vaccine that is made at the facility would meet the regulatory requirements for sale in North America and the European Union, said Trina Racine, director of vaccine development at the centre.
"It puts us on a better footing to keep Canadians safe and to play a leading role in North America and the world on vaccine production. And for Saskatchewan, that's a fantastic story. It's one more expertise we can export from this great province," she said.
A handful of COVID-19 biomanufacturing facilities currently operate in Canada, but Gerdts said the one in Saskatoon is the first of its kind in the country.
For example, he said, biomanufacturing in the facility in Montreal can only make two types of vaccines. While the Saskatoon centre can make mRNA, protein and Novavax vaccines, among others.
"What sets us apart from theirs is that we're able to make human and animal vaccines in the same facility," Gerdts said.
He said there's always a risk of diseases and viruses from around the world spreading to North America, and the Saskatoon facility is designed to research them in real-time.
"So pathogens, in the future that require containment, we can work with that here. Because this space is already operating Canada's largest containment facility," Gerdts said.
"This facility will allow us to rapidly respond on all the platforms ... and hopefully have a vaccine within less than 100 days."
The centre is bringing in exotic animals to do research on, including a bat colony, because bats are known to host a number of viruses.
Gerdts said insects and reptiles are also being brought in, as climate change continues to create uncertainty about the spread of vector-borne diseases from insects such as mosquitoes, ticks and flies.
"It's great for a research organization like ours to be making ... vaccines," Gerdts said. "It's critical in protecting not only Canadians but our livestock industries."