- Medicago’s plant-based vaccine using virus-like particles is currently in its third phase, which is human trials, and is expected to receive approval this year.
- Quebec City’s life sciences sector is bolstered by its long history of biochemistry and medical innovation, providing a base of knowledge and a strong support network.
- The government at all levels has demonstrated a willingness to support the life sciences and vaccine industry, providing valuable tax credits and other programs.
Quebec City is primed to become a global hub for vaccine production and other innovations in the life sciences sector thanks to strong government support, a network of knowledgeable partners, and a high quality of life that attracts talent and visitors from around the world.
How far along is Medicago’s COVID-19 vaccine progress?
The breakthrough element for Medicago is our technology. We are unique in the world in that we use a plant-based system to produce vaccines and therapeutics. For our vaccines, we produce virus-like particles. What does that mean? It means that Medicago is producing a vaccine that will look like the virus without being infectious or able to replicate or induce any disease, and virus-like particles are very effective vaccines.
“Medicago is producing a vaccine that will look like the virus without being infectious or able to replicate or induce any disease.”
We started working on the vaccine at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, and we are currently in Phase 3 trials, so we are enrolling subjects. According to our plans, we will demonstrate efficacy this summer and get regulatory approval after.
This really is a race, and it is the very first time in the industry that we see different technologies involved. It is not old technologies that are being used in producing vaccines for this pandemic, it is new technologies. We are asking a lot of developers to produce at scale and develop rapidly to make the vaccine available.
Why did Medicago decide to build its production facility in Quebec City?
Medicago was founded and grown in Quebec and Canada. It started as a spin-off from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and Université Laval. It was natural that the first development would be hosted in Quebec.
“There is a critical mass of knowledgeable people in vaccine production in Quebec City.”
There was a lot of knowledge from companies like BioChem Pharma and BioChem Vaccines, which eventually merged with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Quebec City. There is a critical mass of knowledgeable people in vaccine production in Quebec City.
We took on the challenge of developing new technologies and innovative products and Canada and Québec are known for having good scientists and being very innovative. Developing new technologies and producing innovative products requires a lot of that, so we surrounded ourselves with these scientists. Quebec City has a combination of scientists to develop these products and the know-how of producing to good manufacturing standards. There are standards in the industry; developing a new product is one thing, but producing it according to industry standards is another, and we found both elements in Quebec City.
What makes Quebec City’s life sciences ecosystem attractive to foreign investors?
The tax credit implemented by the government helped to attract research and development (R&D) investment. However, there is a bit of a gap in terms of government support when it comes to scale-up production and local production, but we are getting over that. The pandemic is helping to secure more manufacturing capacity in Canada, with added financial incentives for people to come to Quebec.
The tax credit is useful for startups. When you are in a certain phase of growth, you can benefit from that and leverage your investment. In terms of capital available, there is some that is available in Quebec. The government programs vary depending on the year but Medicago has been supported by the city, which had a vision and wanted to develop the industry. We are thankful to the City of Quebec for the land on which we are building our large-scale manufacturing facility. It is beside the hospital and we are implementing it there, not far from the city, which makes it easy for our people to commute. There was that willingness from government to get organized and support the industry at the city, provincial and federal level.
“The pandemic is helping to secure more manufacturing capacity in Canada, with added financial incentives for people to come to Quebec.”
In the life sciences, there is always a lot of research on infectious disease and oncology. Université Laval and all the research centres associated with hospitals produce a lot of people working in very specialized domains. The Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods in Université Laval is well known in the world, so there are many different aspects that are developed in Québec.
How is Québec City attracting, growing, and retaining its talent?
The pandemic has shown that remote working, even in the life sciences industry, can work. Unless you need to work in a lab or you are at the facility producing the vaccine, many other functions can be done remotely, and therefore, instead of thinking that we need to bring all the talent to the region, we have proven with the pandemic that there is another way of working. People can work from different parts of the world, meeting from time to time, and still be effective.
For example, in the clinical trial we are managing, some of the clinical teams are based in the US, others are in France, and one is in India. We are changing the way we look at hiring and recruiting talent. Of course, there needs to be a home base, a community, and face-to-face interaction, but the pandemic changed a lot, and it is easier nowadays to have access to talent wherever they are in the world than it was two or three years ago.
For investors looking to invest in Canada, is the size of Quebec and the distance between Quebec City and other major cities daunting?
Without the airport, I would say yes. As long as we have an airport, we have good lines of communication and transport with Montreal, Toronto, and even the US. This is something that is manageable for people commuting to Quebec City.
The size does not really matter. GSK is in Belgium and Brussels is a bigger city, but not that much bigger than Quebec City or Lyon in France. It is not really the size that is important but having a rich community and diversity.
We have a beautiful city. The Festival d’été is absolutely amazing. Hundreds and thousands of people go to shows here from around the country and world. It is not only local people—that would be impossible. There are a lot of people coming in and it is a very interesting city. You do not have to be stuck in traffic for three hours to get somewhere. It only takes 20 minutes to get anywhere. Quality of life is certainly something that people enjoy a lot in Quebec City.