Critics accuse province of rushing to buy vaccines following one week of talks with company

Manitoba agreed to spend $36 million to buy vaccines from a Canadian-made company one week after it first reached out to the firm — which opposition politicians are calling a rushed decision.

Providence Therapeutics CEO Brad Sorenson was unsure if Manitoba could buy their COVID-19 vaccines when he was first contacted by a provincial official on Feb. 3. 

“My initial comment back to them was, ‘Are you sure you can?'” Sorenson said in an interview last Thursday with CBC News.

“They said we can’t get anything internationally, but we believe we can buy domestically.”

Sorenson said he told the official he was happy to discuss, but was focused on his plea to Ottawa for $150 million, which culminated in a letter to the federal government and a news conference on Feb. 5.

“I said, ‘Hold on, I’ll have something for you in a couple of days.'”

By the next week, Manitoba said it was interested in striking a deal, Sorenson said, “and so we began the process.”

Within days, Providence and the Manitoba government signed a term sheet in which the province agreed to buy two million doses of the vaccine, which must still be approved by Health Canada.

The term sheet — which represents Manitoba’s intention to buy vaccines, not the final contract — was signed on Feb. 10, one week after the parties first spoke.

Premier Brian Pallister announced the preliminary agreement on Feb. 11.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said the province was looking into purchasing its own COVID-19 vaccine doses well before it entered into discussions with Providence Therapeutics. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

“One week does not seem like enough time to do due diligence on an issue of this matter,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

“This deal with Providence has been touted so much by the premier, you would expect that they’d left no stone unturned and they’d analyze this thing from every single possible angle. You can’t do that within a week.”

He said Manitoba’s pandemic emergency doesn’t justify the fast turnaround.

“When you’re talking about bringing an unproven vaccine to market, with a good chunk of public money at stake, you would really, really hope that every risk has been mitigated.”

Regardless of whether Providence can deliver vaccines, Manitoba is on the hook for a $7.2 million non-refundable down payment.

Due diligence lasted months: Pallister

Pallister said it’s unfair to portray Manitoba’s research into domestic vaccines as being confined to a matter of days.

“Due diligence didn’t start a week ago,” he said at a news conference Monday. “Our officials have told me that they were researching and looking at options for a significant number of weeks, if not months.”

When asked what due diligence was conducted within the week between the first formal conversation and pledging $36 million, Pallister referred to his government’s preparatory work for months earlier.

Pallister argued publicly that Manitoba cannot be dependent on international pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines, as they may not prioritize their Canadian contracts. Shortages have plagued Canada’s vaccine rollout early this year.

As well, the premier said a dearth of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic showed the importance in Manitoba developing its own supply of what it needs.

The province began looking at smaller vaccine manufacturers last year, Pallister said.

“Those companies have been researched by our people. We decided that we would enter into dialogue with Providence.”

The premier’s spokesperson added Manitoba is ironing out details before signing the contract

“Manitobans are well protected under the normal due diligence for any government contract,” she said by email.

Pallister’s government is the first province to ink a deal to directly buy a COVID-19 vaccine — bypassing the federal government, which assumed responsibility for vaccine procurement.

Further payments dependent on approvals

After a $7.2 million down payment, a summary of the proposed terms of agreement shows Manitoba will pay another 40 per cent of the total price tag if and when the vaccine is approved by federal regulators, and the remaining 40 per cent upon delivery of the product.

Sorenson said he was flattered by Manitoba’s inquiry.

“I can’t express to you how refreshing it was,” he said.

“I realize … some people are saying this is great and some people are saying this is a terrible idea, I appreciate him showing the initiative,” he said of the premier.

Providence Therapeutics CEO Brad Sorenson is confident his company can manufacture the 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine ordered by the Manitoba government before the end of the year. (Providence Therapeutics)

Sorenson said he spent months trying to get the attention of the federal government, which recently promised $4.7 million. He said the more than $2 million he has received so far is “negligible.” 

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he was once involved with efforts to bring vaccine manufacturing to Manitoba, as an employee of the International Centre for Infectious Diseases.

After seeing applications that were 700 to 800 pages long, he doesn’t have the confidence in Providence, whose vaccine has yet to go through human clinical trials.

“I cannot understand how this particular company got picked [by Manitoba] … when it’s so threadbare,” Lamont said of the company.

Sorenson said Providence is in talks with other provinces about coming on board, but nothing is official.