Premier Brian Pallister has defended his deal with a Canadian company that's developing a COVID-19 vaccine and said other provinces are considering securing their own supply from it.
Pallister announced last week his government had reached an agreement to purchase two million doses of a yet-to-be-approved vaccine from Calgary-based Providence Therapeutics.
He acknowledged the vaccine — which has yet to be approved by Health Canada — may not be available this year. "We believe there will be a need for booster shots," Pallister said at a news conference Wednesday.
The premier said Providence is in talks with Alberta and Ontario, provinces that have conservative premiers who are also fed up with vaccine delays and whose COVID-19 responses have been criticized.
Supply-chain problems have delayed shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to Canada, making Pallister and others who are anxious to get jabs into Manitobans "uncomfortable."
"We are 54th in the world," he said of Canada's dismal global ranking Wednesday according to a vaccine tracking agency.
"The supply chain could be interrupted again and again and again," the premier said. "We cannot administer vaccines we do not have," he said.
"This is the time to act." Investing in the Calgary company to develop the vaccine, which a Winnipeg pharmaceutical company would manufacture, could ensure Manitobans have access to the vaccine, the premier said.
The cost per dose is $18, with a lowest-price guarantee, Pallister said. The $36-million deal includes a 20 per cent ($7.2 million) non-refundable deposit. Another $14.4 million is due if and when Health Canada approves the vaccine and the final $14.4-million instalment is due upon delivery. The terms of the deal say Manitoba will receive the first 200,000 doses produced, and Pallister said that may not happen until next year.
"We are putting capital at risk," Pallister said. "I'm careful with taxpayers' money." He expressed confidence in giving the Alberta company the $7.2-million non-refundable downpayment.
"This is a company which we believe can do the job," the premier said. "We are willing to put some money down and hope other Canadian provinces will do the same." The matter will be raised during Thursday's conference call with the premiers and the prime minister, Pallister said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said if the province is going to invest in making vaccines, it should be with the public sector.
"The best solution that we can have is a publicly owned vaccine manufacturer here in Canada," Kinew told reporters. "Manitoba should get in the game and support the public manufacturing of vaccines."
Others questioned the premier's motive for placing a $7.2-million bet on an unproven vaccine developer that has political ties.
The chairman of Providence Therapeutics is Ken Hughes, a former Alberta MLA and MP who served under Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney. Mulroney's chief of staff was David McLaughlin — Pallister's clerk of the executive council, noted Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.
"What the premier is doing is a grift and a scam" on Manitobans, Lamont said. "We're being ripped off by this. There is no vaccine — this is a company that has never taken one of its products through a single human trial," said Lamont.
Its principal address is listed as a home in suburban Calgary and it's trying to develop a COVID-19 vaccine that only multibillion-dollar pharma giants have succeeded at, he said.
Last fall, Providence received $5 million from the federal government to support Stage 1 trials. It got $5 million in January. The company then issued a news release asking Ottawa for $150 million to complete clinical trials.
"If we're going to take them seriously, there needs to be a request for proposals," Lamont said. "They need to be able to prove themselves — there needs to be a competition for other people to be part of this," he said, pointing to other firms and agencies with biotech expertise in Manitoba. "For the premier to say 'I'm just going to hand $7 million to this company' is unbelievable."
The premier's spokeswoman said the government uses an RFP process when there is a competitive market.
"Since there is currently no competitive market for COVID vaccines — only two Canadian companies are able to produce an mRNA vaccine, one of them is already engaged with the feds — and all major suppliers have told us they can’t sell to Manitoba, an RFP would not have added benefit given the urgency to get a domestic vaccine supply," Olivia Billson wrote in an email Wednesday.
Pallister's vaccine proposal aims to shift the blame and divert attention from himself and Conservative premiers Jason Kenney in Alberta and Doug Ford in Ontario for mishandling the COVID-19 crisis to the federal government for mishandling vaccine acquisition, Lamont said.
"The premier is just trying to pull the wool over Manitobans' eyes, to waste our money and give false hope, all to prop up his political allies," said Lamont.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.