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COVID-19 roundup: Canada signs vaccine deals with Pfizer and Moderna, earmarks $78 million for virus R&D

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa in April 2020. The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld
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It’s day 148 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 118,038 as of publication time, up 246 since yesterday—a 13 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 284 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

Over the last week, one person has died every 80 seconds from COVID-19 in the United States, and the pace at which those 7,486 people died seems to be accelerating.

The federal government announced $78 million for COVID-19 research and development on Wednesday, including $59 million for vaccine clinical trials and $19 million for broader research related to the virus. 

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The lion’s share of the vaccine funding—$56 million from the federal Strategic Innovation Fund—will go to Variation Biotechnologies (VBI), an Ottawa-based wholly owned subsidiary of U.S. firm VBI Vaccines, for clinical testing of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The funding for VBI comes from the $600 million previously announced to support COVID-19-related clinical trials and Canada’s bio-manufacturing sector. Another $3 million will go to Nova Scotia-based IMV to help fund clinical trials of its coronavirus vaccine candidate. 

The government announced the funding on the advice of the newly appointed COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, also revealed Wednesday. The group, formed to advise on treatments, is led by Dalhousie University professor Joanne Langley and J. Mark Lievonen, a former Canadian executive for pharmaceutical giant Sanofi. 

The announcements came the same day Procurement Minister Anita Anand confirmed that the government signed deals with pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna to secure millions of doses of their COVID-19 vaccine candidates when they’re ready to deploy them. Both Moderna and Pfizer, which is developing its vaccine with German biotech firm BioNTech, are in the third and final phases of clinical trials and claim they could have “emergency” vaccines ready as early as this fall. Vaccines also need Health Canada approval before being used in Canada.

Canada had been lagging other countries in vaccine preorders, raising concerns Canadians would have to wait longer than others for immunity once treatments were available. Wednesday’s announcements signal a push to diversify potential treatment sources in preparation for “mass vaccination,” and ensuring “Canadians are at the front of the line when a vaccine becomes available,” said Anand. The minister would not say how many doses the government has ordered so far or how much it’s spending on the vaccines, citing ongoing negotiations with multiple suppliers. 

Drinking from the firehose:

  • Canada saw 88,187 business closures in April, up 126 per cent year over year, while new-firm creation dropped 18 per cent to 32,803, according to new data from Statistics Canada. The numbers of companies starting and stopping in any given month are typically quite similar.
  • The Council of Canadian Innovators is calling for Ottawa to extend the Innovation Assistance Program, the National Research Council-administered measure for firms that don’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, until December. The business lobby group also wants the funding focused on firms with “a proven track-record of R&D expenditure and IP generation.”
  • Canada’s merchandise trade deficit hit $3.2 billion in June, up from $1.3 billion the previous month, as imports grew faster than exports. Both remain more than a tenth below February levels.
  • BigCommerce raised US$216 million in its Nasdaq IPO. Shares jumped as much as 292 per cent in the first day of trading, as investors piled into Shopify’s smaller competitor amid a pandemic-induced online-shopping boom.
  • New York City will set up “checkpoints” as part of an effort to enforce a quarantine for travellers from other parts of the U.S. Meanwhile, Chicago, the most populous city in the Midwest, has announced that public school students will start the school year learning from home.  
  • Uber employees can continue to work remotely until July 2021, and the company will pay for up to US$500 in home-office setup costs.
  • English football club Arsenal is laying off 55 staff, citing the loss of commercial and matchday revenue during the pandemic. U.S. billionaire Stanley Kroenke owns the team, which recently qualified for a lucrative European competition.

Green shoots: The Calgary Zoo is worried about procuring the right kind of bamboo to feed Er Shun and Da Mao, after experiencing delays getting the permits to send the giant pandas to China, in part because of COVID-19 quarantine rules.

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