Tag Archives: COVID-19

Who’s running the life science companies’ public relations campaign in British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada)?

I started writing this in the aftermath of the 2021 Canadian federal budget when most of the action (so far) occurred but if you keep going to the end of this post you’ll find updates for Precision Nanosystems and AcCellera and a few extra bits. Also, you may want to check out my August 20, 2021 posting (Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story) about Ian MacLachlan and some of the ‘rough and tumble’ of the biotechnology scene in BC/Canada. Now, onto my analysis of the life sciences public relations campaign in British Columbia.

Gordon Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article (also in print on May 8, 2021) about the British Columbia (mostly in Vancouver) biotechnology scene in the Vancouver Sun is the starting point for this story.

His entry (whether the reporter realizes it or not) into a communications (or public relations) campaign spanning federal, provincial, and municipal jurisdictions is well written and quite informative. While it’s tempting to attribute the whole thing to a single evil genius or mastermind in answer to the question posed in the head, the ‘campaign’ is likely a targeted effort by one or more groups and individuals enhanced with a little luck.

Federal and provincial money for life sciences and technology

The Business Council of British Columbia’s April 22, 2021 Federal & B.C. Budgets 2021 Analysis (PDF), notes this in its Highlights section,

•Another priority reflected in both budgets is boosting innovation and accelerating the growth of technology-producing companies. The federal budget [April 19, 2021] is spending billions more to support the life sciences and bio-manufacturing industry, clean technologies, the development of electric vehicles, the aerospace sector, quantum computing, AI, genomics, and digital technologies, among others.

•B.C.’s budget [April 20, 2021] also provides funding to spur innovation, support the technology sector and grow locally-based companies. In this area the main item is the new InBC Investment Corporation [emphasis mine], first announced last summer. Endowed with $500 million financed via an agency loan, the Corporation will establish a fund to invest in growing and “anchoring” high-growth [emphasis mine] B.C. businesses.

Their in-depth analysis does not provide more detail about the life sciences investments in the 2021 Canadian federal budget or the 2021 BC provincial budget.

My May 4, 2021 posting details many of the Canadian federal investments in life sciences and other technology areas of interest. The 2021 BC budget announcement is so vague, it didn’t merit much more than this mention until now.

InBC Investment Corporation (BC’s contribution)

InBC Investment Corporation was set up on or about April 27, 2021 as three news ‘references’ (brief summaries with a link) suggest: InBC Investment Corp. Act, InBC Announcement, $500-million investment fund paves way for StrongerBC.

While the corporation does not have a specific mandate to fund the biotechnology sector, given the current enthusiasm, it’s easy to believe they might be more inclined to fund them than not, regardless of any expertise they or may not have specifically in that field.

Of most interest to me was InBC’s Board of Directors, which I tracked down to a BC Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation May 6, 2021 news release,

InBC Investment Corp. now has a full board of directors with backgrounds in finance, economics, impact investing and business to provide strategic guidance and accountability for the new Crown corporation.

InBC will support startups [emphasis mine], help promising companies scale up and work with a “triple bottom line” mandate that considers people, the planet and profits, to position British Columbia as a front-runner in the post-pandemic economy.

Christine Bergeron, president and chief executive officer of Vancity, will serve as the new board chair of InBC Investment Corp. The nine-member board of directors is made up of both public and private sector members who are responsible for oversight of the corporation, including its mission, policies and goals.

The InBC board members were selected through a comprehensive process, guided by the principles of the Crown Agencies and Board Resourcing Office. Candidates with a variety of relevant backgrounds were considered to form a strong board consisting of seven women and two men. The members appointed represent diversity as well as appropriate areas of expertise.

The following people were selected as members on the board of directors:

  • Christine Bergeron, president and CEO, Vancity
  • Kevin Campbell, managing director of investment banking, board of directors, Haywood Securities
  • Ingrid Leong, VP finance for JH Investments and chief investment officer, Houssian Foundation
  • Glen Lougheed, serial tech entrepreneur and angel investor
  • Suzanne Trottier, vice-president of Indigenous trust services, First Nations Bank Trust
  • Carole James, former minister of finance and deputy premier, Government of British Columbia
  • Iglika Ivanova, senior economist, public interest researcher, BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Bobbi Plecas, deputy minister, B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation
  • Heather Wood, deputy minister, B.C.’s Ministry of Finance

Legislation to provide the governance framework for InBC was introduced by the legislative assembly on April 27, 2021.

Board experience at growing a startup?

This group of people doesn’t seem to have a shred of experience with startups. Glen Lougheed’s “serial tech entrepreneur and angel investor” description means nothing to me and the description he provides in his LinkedIn profile doesn’t clear up matters,

I am a product and business development professional with an entrepreneurial attitude and strong technical skills. I have been building companies both mine and others since I was a teenager.

Having looked up the two companies for which he is currently acting as Chief Executive Officer, Lougheed’s interest appears to be focused on the use of ‘big data’ in marketing and communications campaigns.

Perhaps startup experience isn’t necessary since the board has been appointed to do this (from the BC Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation May 6, 2021 news release; click on the Backgrounder),

Responsibilities of the InBC Investment Corp. board of directors

The board of directors will be responsible for oversight of the management of the affairs of the corporation. This includes:

  • selecting and approving the chief executive officer and chief innovation officer and monitoring performance and accountabilities;
  • reviewing and approving annual corporate financial statements;
  • oversight of policies that relate to InBC’s mandate and holding the executive to account for its accountabilities with respect to InBC’s mandate;
  • oversight of InBC’s operations; and
  • selection and appointment of InBC’s auditor.

Relationships

So, we have two government civil servants, Wood (Deputy Minister of B.C.’s Ministry of Finance) and Plecas (Deputy Minister of B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation), and James, a BC Minister of Finance, who left the job several months ago. Then we have Lougheed, recently resigned (May 2021) as special advisor on innovation and technology to the BC Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation.

It would seem almost half of this new board is or has been affiliated with the government and, likely, know each other.

I expect there are more relationships to be found but my interest is in the overall picture as it pertains to the biotechnology scene. This board (except possibly for Lougheed) does not seem to have any experience in the biotechnology sector or growing any sort of startup business in any technology field.

Presumably, the new chief executive officer (CEO) and new chief innovation officer (CIO) will have some of the necessary experience. Still, biotechnology isn’t the same as digital technology, an area where the BC technology community is quite strong. (The Canadian federal government’s Digital Technology Supercluster is headquartered in BC.)

I imagine the politics around who gets hired as CEO and as CIO will be quite interesting.

See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for more mention of this ‘secretive’ government corporation.

The BC biotech gorillas

AbCellera was BC’s biggest biotech story in 2020/21 (see my Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist post from December 30, 2020 for more. Do check out the subsection titled “Avo Media …” for a look at an unexpectedly interlaced relationship). Note: The AbCellera COVID-19 treatment is not a vaccine or a vaccine delivery system.

It was a bit surprising that Acuitas Therapeutics didn’t get more attention although Hoekstra seems to have addressed that shortcoming in his May 7, 2021 article by using Thomas Madden and Acuitas as the hook for the story,

By early 2020, concern was mounting about a new, deadly coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China.

The World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency just days before. There had been more than 400 deaths and more than 20,000 cases, most of those in China.

But the virus was spreading around the world. Deaths had occurred in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and the virus had been detected in the U.S. and Canada.

By early January of 2020, scientists in China had already sequenced the virus’s genome and made it public, allowing scientists to begin the research for a vaccine.

Scientists expected that could take years.

But, as a second case was confirmed in B.C. in early February, Thomas Madden, a world-renowned expert in nanotechnology who heads Vancouver-based biotech company Acuitas Therapeutics, flew to Germany. [emphases mine]

Acuitas was in the business of creating lipid nanoparticles, microscopic biological vehicles that could deliver drugs [emphasis mine] — for example, to specifically target cancers in the body.

Scientists are already beginning to say it’s likely that a booster vaccine will be needed [emphasis mine] next year to deal with the virus variants.

Madden, the head of Acuitas, says it makes absolute sense to use the new biotechnology, for example, the use of messenger RNA vaccines, to prepare and fight future pandemics.

Says Madden [emphasis mine]: “The technology in terms of what it’s able to do is absolutely phenomenal. It’s just taken us 40 years to get here.”

So, Hoekstra reminds us of the international nature and urgency of the crisis, then, introduces Acuitas as a vital and local player in solutions deployed internationally, and, finally, brings us back to Acuitas after providing an overview of the BC biotech scene and the federal and provincial government’s latest moves,

AbCellera Biologics is more of a supporting player, along with a number of other companies, in Hoekstra’s story,

Sandwiched in the middle, you’ll find what I think is the point of the story,

LifeSciences BC and the provincial government’s commitments

From Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article,

The importance of the biotech sector in providing protection against pandemics has caught the attention of the federal and B.C. governments. It has also been noticed by the private markets.

In its budget [April 19, 2021] earlier this month [sic], the federal government promised more than $2 billion in the next seven years to support “promising” life sciences and bio-manufacturing firms, research, training, education and vaccine candidates.

Some companies, including Precision NanoSystems, have already got federal funding. The Vancouver company received $18.2 million last year to help develop its self-replicating mRNA vaccine and another $25 million in early 2021 to assist building a $50-million facility to produce the vaccine.

Last fall, Symvivo received $2.8 million from the National Research Council to help develop its oral COVID-19 vaccine.

AbCellera has also received a pledge of $175.6 million to help build an accredited manufacturing facility in Vancouver [emphasis mine] to produce antibody treatments.

AbCellera expects to double its 230-person workforce over the next two years as it expands its Vancouver campus.

When AbCellera became a publicly traded company late last year, it raised more than $500 million and had a recent market capitalization, the value of its stock, of about $8.5 billion.

When the B.C. government delivered its throne speech recently, the contribution of the province’s life sciences sector in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic was highlighted, with Precision NanoSystems, AbCellera and StarFish Medical getting mentions. “Their work will not only help bring us out of the pandemic, it will position our province for success in the years ahead,” said B.C.’s Lt. Gov. Jane Austen in delivering the throne speech.

When the budget was released the following week [April 20, 2021], B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson said a new three-year, $500-million strategic investment fund would help support and scale up tech firms.

Despite their successes, B.C. biotech firms have faced challenges.

SaNOtize had to go to the U.K. to get support for clinical trials and AbCellera has been disappointed that despite Health Canada emergency approval of its COVID-19 treatment, provinces have been reluctant to use Bamlanivimab.

Hansen, AbCellera’s CEO and a former University of B.C. professor with a PhD in applied physics and biotechnology, said he believes that biotech is the most important frontier of technology.

In the past, while great science was launched from B.C.’s universities, not as great a job was done on turning that science into innovation, jobs [emphasis mine] and the capacity to bring new products to market, possibly because of a lack of entrepreneurship and polices to make it more attractive to companies to grow and thrive here and move here, notes Hansen.

Hurlburt [Wendy Hurlburt], the LifeSciences B.C. CEO, says that policies, including tax structure and patenting [emphasis mine], that encourages innovation companies are needed to support the biotech sector.

But, adds Hansen: “Here in Vancouver, I feel like we’re turning the corner. There’s probably never been a time when Vancouver’s biotech sector [emphasis mine] was stronger. And the future looks very good.”

Not only is the province involved but so is the City of Vancouver (more about that in a bit).

It’s not all about the cash

Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article helped answer a question I had in the title of another posting, January 22, 2021: Why is Precision Nanosystems Inc. in the local (Vancouver, Canada) newspaper? (See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for more to the answer.)

This campaign has been building for a while. In the “Is it magic or how does the federal budget get developed? subsection of my May 4, 2021 posting on the 2021 Canadian federal budget I speculated a little bit,

I believe most of the priorities are set by power players behind the scenes. We glimpsed some of the dynamics courtesy of the WE Charity scandal 2020/21 and the SNC-Lavalin scandal in 2019.

Access to special meetings and encounters are not likely to be given to any member of the ‘great unwashed’ but we do get to see the briefs that are submitted in anticipation of a new budget. These briefs and meetings with witnesses are available on the Parliament of Canada website (Standing Committee on Finance (FINA) webpage for pre-budget consultations.

AbCellera submitted a brief dated August 7, 2020 (PDF) detailing how they would like to see the Income Tax Act amended. It’s not always about getting cash, although that’s very important. In this brief, the company wants “… improved access to the enhanced Scientific Research & Experimental Development tax credit.”

There are many aspects to these campaigns including the federal Income Tax Act and, in this case, municipal involvement.

Vancouver (city government) and the biotech sector

About five weeks prior to the 2021 Canadian federal budget and BC provincial budget announcements, there was some news from the City of Vancouver (from a March 10, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan for dailyhive.com), Note: Links have been removed,

Major expansion plans are abound for AbCellera over the next few years to the extent that the Vancouver-based biotechnology company is now looking to build a massive purpose-built office and medical laboratory campus in Mount Pleasant (Vancouver neighbourhood).

It would be a redevelopment of the entire city block …

… earlier today, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a rezoning enquiry allowing city staff to work with the proponent and accept a formal application for review.

This special additional pre-application step is required due to the temporary ban [emphasis mine] on most types of rezonings within the Broadway Plan’s planning area, until the plan is finalized at the end of 2021.

But city staff are willing to make this a rare exception due to the economic opportunity [emphasis mine] presented by the proposal and the healthcare-related aspects.

“The reasons for advancing this quickly are they are rapidly growing and would like to stay in Vancouver, and we would like them to… We’re very glad to have this company in Vancouver and want to provide them with a permanent home, but in order to scale up, the timeframe to produce their therapy [for viruses] is really time sensitive,” Gil Kelley, the chief urban planner of the City of Vancouver, told city council during today’s [March 10, 2021] meeting.

….

Roughly 10 days after the 2021 budgets are announced, there’s this from Kenneth Chan’s April 29,2021 article on dailyhive.com,

Plans for AbCellera Biologics’ major footprint expansion in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant Industrial Area are moving forward quickly.

Based on the application submitted this week, the Vancouver-based biotechnology company is proposing to redevelop 110 West 4th Avenue …

It will be designated as the rapidly growing company’s global headquarters.

… city staff are providing AbCellera with the highly rare, expedited stream of combining the rezoning and development application processes into one.

By the middle of this decade, AbCellera will have four locations in the area, including its current 21,000 sq ft office at 2215 Yukon Street and a new 44,000 sq ft office nearing completion at 2131 Manitoba Street, just south of its future main hub.

“We’re building state-of-the-art facilities in Vancouver to accelerate the development of new antibody therapies with biotech and pharma partners from around the world,” said Carl Hansen, CEO and president of AbCellera, in a statement.

AbCellera has gained significant international attention over the past year after it co-developed the first authorized COVID-19 antibody therapy for emergency use in high-risk patients in Canada and the United States.

In late 2020, the company closed a successful initial public offering, bringing in $556 million after selling nearly 28 million shares, far exceeding its original goal of raising $250 million. It was the largest-ever IPO [initial public offering] by a Canadian biotech company.

“We see this new site as a creative hub for engineers, software developers, data scientists, biologists and bioinformaticians to collaborate, innovate, and push the frontiers of technology.” [said Veronique Lecault, the COO of AbCellera]

Additionally, AbCellera is also planning to build a clinical-grade, antibody manufacturing facility in Metro Vancouver, funded in part by the $176-million investment it received from the federal government in Spring 2020 [see May 3, 2020 AbCellera news release].

Not cash but AbCellera did get an expedited process for rezoning and I imagine there will be more special treatment as this progresses. (See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for news about the expedited process.)

It’s likely there are other companies in the BC’s life science sector that are eyeing this development with great interest and high hopes for themselves.

What it takes

COVID-19 seems to have galvanized interest and support almost everywhere in the world for life sciences.

I don’t believe that anyone in the life sciences planned for or rejoiced at news of this pandemic. However, the Canadian biotech sector has been working for decades to establish itself as an important economic resource. and, sadly, COVID-19 has been a timely development.

All those years of lobbying, also known as, government relations, marketing, investor relations, public relations and more served as preparation for what looks like a concerted effort and it has paid off in BC at the federal level, provincial level, and municipal level (at least one).

The campaigns continue. Here’s Wendy Hurlburt, president and CEO of LifeSciences BC in a May 14, 2021 Conversations That Matter Vancouver Sun podcast with Stuart McNish. Note: Hurlburt makes an odd comment at about the 7 min. 30 secs. mark regarding insulin and patents.

Her dismay over lost opportunities regarding the insulin patent is right in line with Canada’s current patent mania. See my May 13, 2021 posting, Not a pretty picture: Canada and a patent rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines. As far as I’m aware, Canada’s stance has not changed. Interestingly, Hoekstra’s article doesn’t mention COVID-19 patent waivers.

By contrast, here’s what Frederick Banting (one of the discoverers) had to say about his patent, (from the Banting House Insulin Patents webpage),

About the sale of the patent of insulin for $1 Banting reportedly said, “Insulin belongs to the world, not to me.”

… On January 23rd, 1923 Banting, [Charles] Best, and [James] Collip were awarded the American patents for insulin which they sold to the University of Toronto for $1.00 each.

Hurlburt goes on to express dismay over taxes and notes that some companies may leave for other jurisdictions, which means we will lose ‘innovation’. This is a very common ploy coming from any of the technology sectors and can be dated back at least 30 years.

Unmentioned is the dream/business model that so many Canadian tech entrepreneurs have: grow the company, sell it for a lot of money, and retire, preferably before the age of 40.

Getting back to my point, the current situation is not attributable to one individual or to one company’s efforts or to one life science nonprofit or to one federal Network Centre for Excellence (NanoMedicines Innovation Network [NMIN] located at the University of British Columbia).

Note: I have more about the NMIN and Acuitas Therapeutics in a November 12, 2021 posting and there’s more about NMIN’s 7th annual conference and a very high profile guest in a September 11, 2020 posting.

Strategy at the federal, provincial, and local governments, with an eye to the international scene, has been augmented by luck and opportunism.

Updates and extras

Where updates are concerned I have one for Precision Nanosystems and one for AbCellera. I have extras with regard to Moderna and Canada and, BC’s special fund, inBC Investment Corporation. For anyone who’s curious about Banting and the high cost of insulin, I have a couple of links to further reading.

Precision Nanosystems

From an August 11, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan (Note: Links have been removed),

A homegrown pharmaceutical company has announced plans to significantly scale its operations with the opening of a new production facility in Vancouver’s False Creek Flats.

The new Evolution Block building will contain PNI’s new global headquarters and a new genetic medicine Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) biomanufacturing centre, which would allow the company to expand its capabilities to include the clinical manufacturing of RNA vaccines and therapeutics.

Federal funding totalling $25.1 million for PNI was first announced in February 2021 towards covering part of the development costs of such a facility, as part of the federal government’s new strategy to better ensure Canada has the domestic capacity to secure its own COVID-19 vaccines and prepare the country for future pandemics. It is estimated the vaccine production capacity of the new facility will be 240 million doses annually.

PNI’s location in the False Creek Flats is strategic, given the close proximity to the new St. Paul’s Hospital campus and the growing concentration of tech and healthcare-based industrial businesses.

AbCellera

From a June 22, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan (Note: Links have been removed),

The rapidly growing Vancouver-based biotechnology company announced this morning their 130,000 sq ft Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility will be located on a two-acre site at the 900 block of Evans Avenue, replacing the Urban Beach volleyball courts just next to the City of Vancouver’s Evans maintenance centre and the Regional Recycling Vancouver Bottle Depot.

GMP is partially funded by the $175 million in federal funding received by the company last year to support research into coronavirus treatment.

GMP adds to AbCellera’s major plans to build a new headquarters in close proximity at 110-150 West 4th Avenue in the Mount Pleasant Industrial Area — a city block-sized campus with a total of 380,000 sq ft of laboratory and office space for research and corporate uses.

Both campus buildings are being reviewed under the City of Vancouver’s rare streamlined, expedited process [emphasis mine] of combining the rezoning and development permit applications. AbCellera formally announced its campus plans in April 2021.

AbCellera gained significant international attention last year when it developed the world’s first monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID-19 to be authorized for emergency use in high-risk patients in Canada and the United States. According to the company, over 400,000 doses of its bamlanivimab drug have been administered around the world, and it is estimated to have kept more than 22,000 people out of hospital — saving at least 11,000 lives.

In late 2020, the company closed a successful initial public offering, bringing in $556 million after selling nearly 28 million shares, far exceeding its original goal of raising $250 million. It was the largest-ever IPO by a Canadian biotech company.

Moderna and Canada

It seems like yesterday that Derek Rossi (co-founder of Moderna) was talking about Canada’s need for a biotechnology hub. (see this June 17, 2021 article by Barbara Shecter for the Financial Post). Interestingly, there’s been an announcement of a memorandum of understanding (these things are announced all the time and don’t necessarily result in anything) between Moderna and the government of Canada according to an August 10, 2021 item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news website,

Massachusetts-based drug maker Moderna will build an mRNA vaccine manufacturing plant in Canada within the next two years, CEO Stephane Bancel said Tuesday [August 10, 2021; Note the timing, the writ for the next federal election was dropped on August 15, 2021].

The company has signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government that will result in Canada becoming the home of Moderna’s first foreign operation. It’s not clear yet how much money Canada has offered to Moderna [emphasis mine] for the project.

Canada, whose life sciences industry has been decimated over the last three decades, wants in on the action. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to rebuild the industry, and the recent budget included a $2.2 billion, seven-year investment to grow the life science and biotech sectors.

Almost half of that targets companies that want to expand or set up vaccine and drug production in Canada. None of the COVID-19 vaccines to date have been made in Canada, leaving the country entirely reliant on imports to fill vaccine orders. As a result, Canada was slower out of the gate on immunizations than some of its counterparts with domestic production, and likely had to pay more per dose for some vaccines as well.

The location of the new facility hasn’t been finalized, but Bancel said the availability of an educated workforce will be the main deciding factor. He said the design is done and they’ll need to start hiring very soon so training can begin.

it’s not exactly a hub but who knows what the future will bring? I imagine there’s going to be some serious wrangling behind the scenes as the provinces battle to be the location for the facility. Note that Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne who made the announcement with Bancel in Montréal represents a federal riding in Québec. (BTW, Bancel is from France and seems to have spent much of his adult life in the US.) Of course anything can happen and I’m sure the BC contingent will make themselves felt but it would seem that Quebec is the front runner for now, assuming this memorandum of understanding leads to a facility. Given that we are in the midst of a federal election, it seems more probable than it might otherwise.

inBC Investment Corporation

Bob Mackin’s August 13, 2021 article for theBreaker.news sheds some light on how that corporation was formed so very quickly and more,

The B.C. NDP government rejigged the B.C. Immigrant Investor Fund last year, but refused to release the business case when it was rebranded as inBC Investment Corp. in late April [2021].

theBreaker.news requested the business case for the $500 million fund, which is overseen by a board of NDP patronage appointees, on May 6 [2021].

The 123-page document below is heavily censored — meaning the NDP cabinet is refusing to tell British Columbians the projected operating costs (including board expenses, salary and benefits, office space, operating and administration), full-time equivalents, and cash flows for the newest Crown corporation. inBC bills itself as a triple-bottom line organization, meaning it intends to invest on the basis of social, environmental and economic values.

When its enabling legislation was tabled, the NDP took steps to exempt inBC from the freedom of information law.

Thank you, Mr. Mackin.

More on Banting, insulin and patents

Caitlyn McClure’s 2016 article (Insulin’s Inventor Sold the Patent for $1. Then Drug Companies Got Hold of It.) for other98.com is a brief and pithy explanation for why insulin costs so much. Alanna Mitchell’s August 13, 2019 article for Maclean’s magazine investigates ‘insulin tourism’ and offers more detail as to how this situation has come about.

One last reminder, my August 20, 2021 posting (Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story) about Ian MacLachlan provides insight into how competitive and rough the bitotechnology scene can be here in BC/Canada.

‘Nanotraps’ for catching and destroying coronavirus

‘Nanotraps’ are not vaccines although they do call the immune system into play. They represent a different way for dealing with COVID-19. (This work reminds of my June 24, 2020 posting Tiny sponges lure coronavirus away from lung cells where the researchers have a similar approach with what they call ‘nanosponges’.)

An April 27, 2021 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement,

Researchers at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago have designed a completely novel potential treatment for COVID-19: nanoparticles that capture SARS-CoV-2 viruses within the body and then use the body’s own immune system to destroy it.

These “Nanotraps” attract the virus by mimicking the target cells the virus infects. When the virus binds to the Nanotraps, the traps then sequester the virus from other cells and target it for destruction by the immune system.

In theory, these Nanotraps could also be used on variants of the virus, leading to a potential new way to inhibit the virus going forward. Though the therapy remains in early stages of testing, the researchers envision it could be administered via a nasal spray as a treatment for COVID-19.

A scanning electron microscope image of a nanotrap (orange) binding a simulated SARS-CoV-2 virus (dots in green). Scientists at the University of Chicago created these nanoparticles as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Image courtesy Chen and Rosenberg et al.

An April 27, 2021 University of Chicago news release (also on EurekAlert) by Emily Ayshford, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

“Since the pandemic began, our research team has been developing this new way to treat COVID-19,” said Asst. Prof. Jun Huang, whose lab led the research. “We have done rigorous testing to prove that these Nanotraps work, and we are excited about their potential.”

Designing the perfect trap

To design the Nanotrap, the research team – led by postdoctoral scholar Min Chen and graduate student Jill Rosenberg – looked into the mechanism SARS-CoV-2 uses to bind to cells: a spike-like protein on its surface that binds to a human cell’s ACE2 receptor protein.

To create a trap that would bind to the virus in the same way, they designed nanoparticles with a high density of ACE2 proteins on their surface. Similarly, they designed other nanoparticles with neutralizing antibodies on their surfaces. (These antibodies are created inside the body when someone is infected and are designed to latch onto the coronavirus in various ways).

Both ACE2 proteins and neutralizing antibodies have been used in treatments for COVID-19, but by attaching them to nanoparticles, the researchers created an even more robust system for trapping and eliminating the virus.

Made of FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]-approved polymers and phospholipids, the nanoparticles are about 500 nanometers in diameter – much smaller than a cell. That means the Nanotraps can reach more areas inside the body and more effectively trap the virus.

The researchers tested the safety of the system in a mouse model and found no toxicity. They then tested the Nanotraps against a pseudovirus – a less potent model of a virus that doesn’t replicate – in human lung cells in tissue culture plates and found that they completely blocked entry into the cells.

Once the pseudovirus bound itself to the nanoparticle – which in tests took about 10 minutes after injection – the nanoparticles used a molecule that calls the body’s macrophages to engulf and degrade the Nanotrap. Macrophages will generally eat nanoparticles within the body, but the Nanotrap molecule speeds up the process. The nanoparticles were cleared and degraded within 48 hours.

The researchers also tested the nanoparticles with a pseudovirus in an ex vivo lung perfusion system – a pair of donated lungs that is kept alive with a ventilator – and found that they completely blocked infection in the lungs.

They also collaborated with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory to test the Nanotraps with a live virus (rather than a pseudovirus) in an in vitro system. They found that their system inhibited the virus 10 times better than neutralizing antibodies or soluble ACE2 alone.

A potential future treatment for COVID-19 and beyond

Next the researchers hope to further test the system, including more tests with a live virus and on the many virus variants.

“That’s what is so powerful about this Nanotrap,” Rosenberg said. “It’s easily modulated. We can switch out different antibodies or proteins or target different immune cells, based on what we need with new variants.”

The Nanotraps can be stored in a standard freezer and could ultimately be given via an intranasal spray, which would place them directly in the respiratory system and make them most effective.

The researchers say it is also possible to serve as a vaccine by optimizing the Nanotrap formulation, creating an ultimate therapeutic system for the virus.

“This is the starting point,” Huang said. “We want to do something to help the world.”

The research involved collaborators across departments, including chemistry, biology, and medicine.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nanotraps for the containment and clearance of SARS-CoV-2 by Min Chen, Jillian Rosenberg, Xiaolei Cai, Andy Chao Hsuan Lee, Jiuyun Shi, Mindy Nguyen, Thirushan Wignakumar, Vikranth Mirle, Arianna Joy Edobor, John Fung, Jessica Scott Donington, Kumaran Shanmugarajah, Yiliang Lin, Eugene Chang, Glenn Randall, Pablo Penaloza-MacMaster, Bozhi Tian, Maria Lucia Madariaga, Jun Huang. Matter, April 19, 2021, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matt.2021.04.005

This paper appears to be open access.

Not a pretty picture: Canada and a patent rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

At about 7:15 am PT this morning , May 13, 2021, I saw Dr. Mona Nemer’s (Canada’s Chief Science Advisor) tweet (Note: I’m sorry the formatting isn’t better,

Maryse de la Giroday@frogheart Does this mean Canada will support a waiver on patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines?

7:18 AM · May 13, 2021

Dr. Mona Nemer@ChiefSciCanThe global health crisis of the past year has underscored the critical importance of openly sharing scientific information. We are one step closer to making #openscience a reality around the world. So pleased that my office was part of these discussions. http://webcast.unesco.org/events/2021-05-OS-IGM/ Quote Tweet

Canada at UNESCO@Canada2UNESCO · May 6@Canada2UNESCO is partaking in negotiations today on the draft recommendation on #OpenScience The benefits of #science and #technology to health, the #economy and #development should be available to all.6:40 AM · May 13, 2021·Twitter Web App

No reply. No surprise

Brief summary of Canada’s COVID-19 patent rights nonwaiver

You’ll find more about the UNESCO meeting on open science in last week’s May 7, 2021 posting (Listen in on a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting [about Open Science]).

At the time, I noted a disparity in Canada’s policies centering on open science and patents; scroll down to the “Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada” subsection for a more nuanced analysis. For those who don’t have the patience and/or the time, it boils down to this:

  1. Canada is happily participating in a UNESCO meeting on open science,
  2. the 2021 Canadian federal budget just dedicated a big chunk of money to augmenting Canada’s national patent strategy, and
  3. Canada is “willing to discuss” a waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings.

I predicted UNESCO would see our representative’s enthusiastic participation while our representative at the WTO meeting would dance around the topic without committing. to anything. Sadly, it’s starting to look like I was right.

Leigh Beadon in a May 12, 2021 posting on Techdirt reveals the situation is worse than I thought (Note: Links have been removed),

Few things illustrate the broken state of our global intellectual property system better than the fact that, well over a year into this devastating pandemic and in the face of a strong IP waiver push by some of the hardest hit countries, patents are still holding back the production of life-saving vaccines. And of all the countries opposing a waiver at the WTO (or withholding support for it, which is functionally the same thing), Canada might be the most frustrating [emphasis mine].

Canada is the biggest hoarder [emphasis mine] of vaccine pre-orders, having secured enough to vaccinate the population five times over. Despite this, it has constantly run into supply problems and lagged behind comparable countries when it comes to administering the vaccines on a per capita basis. In response to criticism of its hoarding, the government continues to focus on its plans to donate all surplus doses to the COVAX vaccine sharing program — but these promises were somewhat more convincing before Canada became the only G7 country to withdraw doses from COVAX. Despite all this, and despite pressure from experts who explain how vaccine hoarding will prolong the pandemic for everyone, the country has continually refused to voice its support for a TRIPS patent waiver at the WTO.

Momentum for changing Canada’s position on a COVID-19 vaccine patent right waivers?

Maclean’s magazine has a May 10, 2021 open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

The only way to combat this pandemic successfully is through a massive global vaccination campaign on a scale and timeline never before undertaken. This requires the production of effective tools and technologies to fight COVID-19 at scale and coordinated global distribution efforts.

The Trade-Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is leading to the opposite outcome. Vaccine production is hindered by granting pharmaceutical companies monopoly power through protection of intellectual property rights, industrial designs and trade secrets. Pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to engage in health technology knowledge transfer makes large-scale, global vaccine production in (and for) low- and middle-income countries all but impossible. The current distribution of vaccines globally speaks to these obstacles.

Hundreds of civil society groups, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the elected governments of over 100 countries, including India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have come together and stated that current intellectual property protections reduce the availability of vaccines for protecting their people. On May 5, 2021 the United States also announced its intention to support a temporary waiver for vaccines at the WTO.

We are writing to ask our Canadian government to demonstrate its commitment to an equitable global pandemic response by supporting a temporary waiver of the TRIPS agreement. But clearly that is a necessary but not a sufficient first step. We recognize that scaling up vaccine production requires more than just a waiver of intellectual property rights, so we further request that our government support the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to facilitate knowledge sharing and work with the WTO to address the supply chain and export constraints currently impeding vaccine production. Finally, because vaccines must be rolled out as part of an integrated strategy to end the acute phase of the epidemic, we request that Canada support the full scope of the TRIPS waiver, which extends to all essential COVID-19 products and technologies, including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

The status quo is clearly not working fast enough to end the acute phase of the pandemic globally. This waiver respects global intellectual property frameworks and takes advantage of existing provisions for exceptions during emergencies, as enshrined in the TRIPS agreement. Empowering countries to take measures to protect their own people is fundamental to bringing this pandemic to an end.

Anand Giridharadas (author of the 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) also makes the case for a patent rights waiver in his May 11, 2021 posting on The Ink, Note: A link has been removed,

Patents are temporary monopolies granted to inventors, to reward invention and thus encourage more of it. But what happens when you invent a drug that people around the world require to stay alive? What happens when, furthermore, that drug was built in part on technology the public paid for? Are there limits to intellectual property?

For years, activists have pressured the United States government to break or suspend patents in particular cases, as with HIV/Aids. They have had little luck. Indeed, the United States has often fought developing countries when they try to break patents to do right by their citizens, choosing American drug companies over dying people.

So it was a dramatic swerve when, last week, the Biden administration announced that it supported a waiver of the patents for Covid vaccines.

Not long afterward, I reached out to several leading activists for vaccine access to understand the significance of the announcement and where we go from here.

in all this talk about patents and social justice and, whether it’s directly referenced or not, money, the only numbers of I’ve seen,until recently, have been numbers of doses and aggregate costs.

How much does a single vaccine dose cost?

A Sunday, April 11, 2021 article by Krassen Nikolov for EURACTIV provides an answer about the cost in one region, the European Union,

“Pfizer cost €12, then €15.50. The Commission now signs contracts for €19,50”, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov revealed on Sunday [April 11, 2021].

The European Commission is in talks with Pfizer for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines in 2022 and 2023. Borissov said the contracts provide for €19.50 per dose.

Under an agreement with the vaccine producing companies, the European Commission has so far refused to reveal the price of vaccines. However, last December Belgian Secretary of State Eva De Bleeker shared on Twitter the vaccine prices negotiated by the Commission, as well as the number of doses purchased by her government. Then, it became known that the AstraZeneca jab costs €1.78 compared to €12 for Pfizer-BioNTech.

€12 to €19,50, that’s an increase of over 50%. I wonder how Pfizer is justifying such a hefty increase?

According to a March 16, 2021 article by Swikar Oli for the National Post (a Canadian newspaper), these prices are a cheap pandemic special prices,

A top Pfizer executive told shareholders the company is looking at a “significant opportunity” to raise the price of its Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

While addressing investors at the virtual Barclays Global Healthcare Conference last week, Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amelio noted they could raise prices when the virus becomes endemic, meaning it’s regularly found in clusters around the globe, according to a transcript of the conference posted on Pfizer’s website.

Current vaccine pricing models are pandemic-related, D’Amelio explained. After the pandemic is defeated and “normal market conditions” arrive, he noted the window would open for a “significant opportunity…from a pricing perspective.”

“So the one price that we published is the price with the U.S. of $19.50 per dose. Obviously, that’s not a normal price like we typically get for a vaccine, $150, $175 [emphasis mine] per dose,” he said, “So pandemic pricing.”

If I remember it rightly, as you increase production, you lower costs per unit. In other words, it’s cheaper to produce one dozen than one, which is why your bakery charges you less money per bun or cake if you purchase by the dozen.

During this pandemic, Pfizer has been producing huge amounts of vaccine, which they would not expect to do should the disease become endemic. As Pfizer has increased production, I would think the price should be dropping but according to the Bulgarian prime minister, it’s not.

They don’t seem to be changing the vaccine as new variants arrive. So, raising the prices doesn’t seem to be linked to research issues and as for the new production facilities, surely those didn’t cost billions.

Canada and COVID-19 money

Talking about money, Canada has a COVDI-19 billionaire according to a December 23, 2020 article (Meet The 50 Doctors, Scientists And Healthcare Entrepreneurs Who Became Pandemic Billionaires In 2020) by Giacomo Tognini for Forbes.

I have a bit more about Carl Hansen (COVID-19 billionaire) and his company, AbCellera, in my December 30, 2020 posting.

I wonder how much the Canadian life sciences community has to do with Canada’s hesitancy over a COVID-19 vaccine patent rights waiver.

Online symposium (April 27 – 28, 2021) on Canada’s first federal budget in two years

The Canadian federal budget is due to be announced/revealed on April 19, 2021—the first budget we’ve seen since 2019.

The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC)is hosting an April 27 -28, 2021 symposium online and the main focus will be on science and funding. Before moving onto the symposium details, I think a quick refresher is in order.

No oversight, WE Charity scandal

While the Liberal government has done much which is laudable by supporting people and businesses through this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, there have been at least two notable missteps with regard to fiscal responsibility. This March 24, 2020 article in The Abbotsford News outlines the problem,

Conservative Finance critic Pierre Poilievre says there’s no deal yet between the Liberal government and Opposition over a proposed emergency aid bill to spend billions of dollars to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and cushion some of its damage to the economy.

The opposition parties had said they would back the $82 billion in direct spending and deferred taxes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to put up to prepare the country for mass illness and help Canadians cope with lost jobs and wages.

Yet a draft of the bill circulated Monday suggested it was going to give cabinet, not MPs, extraordinary power over taxes and spending, so ministers could act without Parliament’s approval for months.

The Conservatives will support every one of the aid measures contained in bill with no debate, Poilievre said. The only issue is whether the government needs to be given never before seen powers to tax and spend. [emphasis mine]

When there’s a minority government like the one Trudeau leads, the chance to bring the government down on a spending bill is what gives the opposition its power.

The government did not receive that approval in Parliament—but they tried. That was in March 2020; a few weeks later, there’s this (from the WE Charity scandal entry on Wikipedia),, Note: Links have been removed

On April 5, 2020 amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and his then-Finance Minister Bill Morneau, held a telephone conversation discussing measures to financially assist the country’s student population.[14] The Finance Department was tasked with devising a series of measures to address these issues. This would begin a chain of events involving numerous governmental agencies.

Through a no-bid selection process [emphasis mine], WE Charity was chosen to administer the CSSG [Canada Student Service Grant], which would have created grants for students who volunteered during the COVID-19 pandemic.[15][13] The contract agreement was signed with WE Charity Foundation,[16] a corporation affiliated with WE Charity, on June 23, 2020. It was agreed that WE Charity, which had already begun incurring eligible expenses for the project on May 5 at their own risk,[17][18] would be paid $43.53 million[19] to administer the program; $30 million of which was paid to WE Charity Foundation on June 30, 2020.[18] This was later fully refunded.[17] A senior bureaucrat would note that “ESDC thinks that ‘WE’ might be able to be the volunteer matching third party … The mission of WE is congruent with national service and they have a massive following on social media.”[20]

Concurrent to these events, and prior to the announcement of the CSSG on June 25, 2020, WE Charity was simultaneously corresponding with the same government agencies ultimately responsible for choosing the administrator of the program.[8] WE Charity would submit numerous proposals in April, beginning on April 9, 2020, on the topic of youth volunteer award programs.[9] These were able to be reformed into what became the CSSG.[8]

On June 25, 2020 Justin Trudeau announced a series of relief measures for students. Among them was the Canada Student Service Grant program; whereby students would be eligible to receive $1000 for every 100 hours of volunteer activities, up to $5,000.[21]

The structure of the program, and the selection of WE Charity as its administrator, immediately triggered condemnation amongst the Official Opposition,[22] as well as numerous other groups, such as the Public Service Alliance of Canada,[7] Democracy Watch,[23] and Volunteer Canada[24] who argued that WE Charity:

  • Was not the only possible administrator as had been claimed
  • Had been the beneficiary of cronyism
  • Had experienced significant disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic and required a bailout
  • Had illegally lobbied the government
  • Was unable to operate in French-speaking regions of Canada
  • Was potentially in violation of labour laws
  • Had created hundreds of volunteer positions with WE Charity itself as part of the program, doing work generally conducted by paid employees, representing a conflict of interests. …

In a July 13, 2020 article about the scandal on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) online, it’s noted that Trudeau was about to undergo his third ethics inquiry since first becoming Prime Minister in 2015. His first ethics inquiry took place in 2017, the second in 2019, and again in 2020.

None of this has anything to do with science funding (as far as I know) but it does set the stage for questions about how science funding is determined and who will be getting it. There are already systems in place for science funding through various agencies but the federal budget often sets special priorities such as the 2017 Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy with its attendant $125M. As well,Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to use science as a means of enhancing his appeal. See my March 16, 2018 posting for a sample of this, scroll down to the “Sunny ways: a discussion between Justin Trudeau and Bill Nye” subhead.

Federal Budget 2021 Symposium

From the CSPC’s Federal Budget 2021 Symposium event page, Note: Minor changes have been made due to my formatting skills, or lack thereof,

Keynote talk by David Watters entitled: “Canada’s Performance in R&D and Innovation Ecosystem in the Context of Health and Economic Impact of COVID-19 and Investments in the Budget“ [sic]

Tentative Event Schedule

Tuesday April 27
12:00 – 4:30 pm EDT

12:00 – 1:00 Session I: Keynote Address: The Impact of Budget 2021 on the Performance of Canada’s National R&D/Innovation Ecosystem 

David Watters, President & CEO, Global Advantage Consulting

1:15 – 1:45 Session II: Critical Analysis 

Robert Asselin, Senior Vice President, Policy, Business Council of Canada
Irene Sterian, Founder, President & CEO, REMAP (Refined Manufacturing Acceleration Process); Director, Technology & Innovation, Celestica
David Wolfe, Professor of Political Science, UTM [University of Toronto Mississauga], Innovation Policy Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

2:00 – 3:00 Session III: Superclusters 

Bill Greuel, CEO, Protein Industries Canada
Kendra MacDonald, CEO, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster
Angela Mondou, President & CEO, TECHNATION
Jayson Myers, CEO, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen)

3:30 – 4:30 Session IV: Business & Industry 3:30 – 4:30

Namir Anani, President & CEO, Information and Communications Technology Council [ICTC]
Karl Blackburn, President & CEO, Conseil du patronat du Québec
Tabatha Bull, President & CEO, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business [CCAB]
Karen Churchill, President & CEO, Ag-West Bio Inc.
Karimah Es Sabar, CEO & Partner of Quark Venture LP; Chair, Health/Biosciences Economic Strategy Table

Wednesday April 28
2:00 – 4:30 pm EDT

2:00 – 3:00 Session V: Universities and Colleges

Steven Liss, Vice-President, Research and Innovation & Professor of Chemistry and Biology, Faculty of Science, Ryerson University
Madison Rilling, Project Manager, Optonique, Québec’s Optics & Photonics Cluster; Youth Council Member, Office of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada

3:30 – 4:30 Session VI: Non-Governmental Organizations 

Genesa M. Greening, President & CEO, BC Women’s Health Foundation
Maya Roy, CEO, YWCA Canada
Gisèle Yasmeen, Executive Director, Food Secure Canada
Jayson Myers, CEO, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen)

Register Here

Enjoy!

PS: I expect the guests at the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s (CSPC) April 27 – 28, 2021 Federal Budget Symposium to offer at least some commentary that boils down to ‘we love getting more money’ or ‘we’re not getting enough money’ or a bit of both.

I also expect the usual moaning over our failure to support industrial research and/or home grown companies E.g., Element AI (Canadian artificial intelligence company formerly headquartered in Montréal) was sold to a US company in November 2020 (see the Wikipedia entry). The US company doesn’t seem to have kept any of the employees but it seems to have acquired the intellectual property.

Health Canada advisory: Face masks that contain graphene may pose health risks

Since COVID-19, we’ve been advised to wear face masks. It seems some of them may not be as safe as we assumed. First, the Health Canada advisory that was issued today, April 2, 2021 and then excerpts from an in-depth posting by Dr. Andrew Maynard (associate dean in the Arizona State University College of Global Futures) about the advisory and the use of graphene in masks.

From the Health Canada Recalls & alerts: Face masks that contain graphene may pose health risks webpage,

Summary

  • Product: Face masks labelled to contain graphene or biomass graphene.
  • Issue: There is a potential that wearers could inhale graphene particles from some masks, which may pose health risks.
  • What to do: Do not use these face masks. Report any health product adverse events or complaints to Health Canada.

Issue

Health Canada is advising Canadians not to use face masks that contain graphene because there is a potential that they could inhale graphene particles, which may pose health risks.

Graphene is a novel nanomaterial (materials made of tiny particles) reported to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. Health Canada conducted a preliminary scientific assessment after being made aware that masks containing graphene have been sold with COVID-19 claims and used by adults and children in schools and daycares. Health Canada believes they may also have been distributed for use in health care settings.

Health Canada’s preliminary assessment of available research identified that inhaled graphene particles had some potential to cause early lung toxicity in animals. However, the potential for people to inhale graphene particles from face masks and the related health risks are not yet known, and may vary based on mask design. The health risk to people of any age is not clear. Variables, such as the amount and duration of exposure, and the type and characteristics of the graphene material used, all affect the potential to inhale particles and the associated health risks. Health Canada has requested data from mask manufacturers to assess the potential health risks related to their masks that contain graphene.

Until the Department completes a thorough scientific assessment and has established the safety and effectiveness of graphene-containing face masks, it is taking the precautionary approach of removing them from the market while continuing to gather and assess information. Health Canada has directed all known distributors, importers and manufacturers to stop selling and to recall the affected products. Additionally, Health Canada has written to provinces and territories advising them to stop distribution and use of masks containing graphene. The Department will continue to take appropriate action to stop the import and sale of graphene face masks.

Products affected

Face masks labelled as containing graphene or biomass graphene.

What you should do

  • Do not use face masks labelled to contain graphene or biomass graphene.
  • Consult your health care provider if you have used graphene face masks and have health concerns, such as new or unexplained shortness of breath, discomfort or difficulty breathing.
  • Report any health product adverse events or complaints regarding graphene face masks to Health Canada.

Dr. Andrew Maynard’s Edge of Innovation series features a March 26, 2021 posting about the use of graphene in masks (Note: Links have been removed),

Face masks should protect you, not place you in greater danger. However, last Friday Radio Canada revealed that residents of Quebec and Ottawa were being advised not to use specific types of graphene-containing masks as they could potentially be harmful.

The offending material in the masks is graphene — a form of carbon that consists of nanoscopically thin flakes of hexagonally-arranged carbon atoms. It’s a material that has a number of potentially beneficial properties, including the ability to kill bacteria and viruses when they’re exposed to it.

Yet despite its many potential uses, the scientific jury is still out when it comes to how safe the material is.

As with all materials, the potential health risks associated with graphene depend on whether it can get into the body, where it goes if it can, what it does when it gets there, and how much of it is needed to cause enough damage to be of concern.

Unfortunately, even though these are pretty basic questions, there aren’t many answers forthcoming when it comes to the substance’s use in face masks.

Early concerns around graphene were sparked by previous research on another form of carbon — carbon nanotubes. It turns out that some forms of these fiber-like materials can cause serious harm if inhaled. And following on from research here, a natural next-question to ask is whether carbon nanotubes’ close cousin graphene comes with similar concerns.

Because graphene lacks many of the physical and chemical aspects of carbon nanotubes that make them harmful (such as being long, thin, and hard for the body to get rid of), the indications are that the material is safer than its nanotube cousins. But safer doesn’t mean safe. And current research indicates that this is not a material that should be used where it could potentially be inhaled, without a good amount of safety testing first.

[downloaded from https://medium.com/edge-of-innovation/how-safe-are-graphene-based-face-masks-b88740547e8c] Original source: Wikimedia

When it comes to inhaling graphene, the current state of the science indicates that if the material can get into the lower parts of the lungs (the respirable or alveolar region) it can lead to an inflammatory response at high enough concentrations.

There is some evidence that adverse responses are relatively short-lived, and that graphene particles can be broken down and disposed of by the lungs’ defenses.

This is good news as it means that there are less likely to be long-term health impacts from inhaling the material.

There’s also evidence that graphene, unlike some forms of thin, straight carbon nanotubes, does not migrate to the outside layers of the lungs where it could potentially do a lot more damage.

Again, this is encouraging as it suggests that graphene is unlikely to lead to serious long-term health impacts like mesothelioma.

However, research also shows that this is not a benign material. Despite being made of carbon — and it’s tempting to think of carbon as being safe, just because we’re familiar with it — there is some evidence that the jagged edges of some graphene particles can harm cells, leading to local damage as the body responds to any damage the material causes.

There are also concerns, although they are less well explored in the literature, that some forms of graphene may be carriers for nanometer-sized metal particles that can be quite destructive in the lungs. This is certainly the case with some carbon nanotubes, as the metallic catalyst particles used to manufacture them become embedded in the material, and contribute to its toxicity.

The long and short of this is that, while there are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge around how much graphene it’s safe to inhale, inhaling small graphene particles probably isn’t a great idea unless there’s been comprehensive testing to show otherwise.

And this brings us to graphene-containing face masks.

….

Here, it’s important to stress that we don’t yet know if graphene particles are being released and, if they are, whether they are being released in sufficient quantities to cause health effects. And there are indications that, if there are health risks, these may be relatively short-term — simply because graphene particles may be effectively degraded by the lungs’ defenses.

At the same time, it seems highly irresponsible to include a material with unknown inhalation risks in a product that is intimately associated with inhalation. Especially when there are a growing number of face masks available that claim to use graphene.

… There are millions of graphene face masks and respirators being sold and used around the world. And while the unfolding news focuses on Quebec and one particular type of face mask, this is casting uncertainty over the safety of any graphene-containing masks that are being sold.

And this uncertainty will persist until manufacturers and regulators provide data indicating that they have tested the products for the release and subsequent inhalation of fine graphene particles, and shown the risks to be negligible.

I strongly recommend reading, in its entirety , Dr. Maynard’s March 26, 2021 posting, Which he has updated twice since first posting the story.

In short. you may want to hold off before buying a mask with graphene until there’s more data about safety.

COVID-19 infection as a dance of molecules

What a great bit of work, publicity-wise, from either or both the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (Canada) and artist/scientist Radha Chaddah. IAM (ee-yam): Dance of the Molecules, a virtual performance installation featuring COVID-19 and molecular dance, has been profiled in the Toronto Star, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, and in the Globe and Mail within the last couple of weeks. From a Canadian perspective, that’s major coverage and much of it national.

Bruce DeMara’s March 11, 2021 article for the Toronto Star introduces artist/scientist Radha Chaddah, her COVID-19 dance of molecules, and her team (Note: A link has been removed),

Visual artist Radha Chaddah has always had an abiding interest in science. She has a degree in biology and has done graduate studies in stem cell research.

[…] four-act dance performance; the first part “IAM: Dance of the Molecules” premiered as a digital exhibition on the Aga Khan Museum’s website March 5 [2021] and runs for eight weeks. Subsequent acts — human, planetary and universal, all using the COVID virus as an entry point — will be unveiled over the coming months until the final instalment in December 2022.

Among Chaddah’s team were Allie Blumas and the Open Fortress dance collective — who perform as microscopic components of the virus’s proliferation, including “spike” proteins, A2 receptors and ribosomes — costumiers Call and Response (who designed for the late Prince), director of photography Henry Sansom and composer Dan Bédard (who wrote the film’s music after observing the dance rehearsals remotely).

A March 5, 2021 article by Leah Collins for CBC online offers more details (Note: Links have been removed),

This month, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is debuting new work from local artist Radha Chaddah. Called IAM, this digital exhibition is actually the first act in a series of four short films that she aims to produce between now and the end of 2022. It’s a “COVID story,” says Chaddah, but one that offers a perspective beyond the anniversary of its impact on life and culture and toilet-paper consumption. “I wanted to present a piece that makes people think about the coronavirus in a different way,” she explains, “one that pulls them out of the realm of fear and puts our imaginations into the realm of curiosity.”

It’s scientific curiosity that Chaddah’s talking about, and her own extra-curricular inquiries first sparked the series. For several years, Chaddah has produced work that splices art and science, a practice she began while doing grad studies in molecular neurobiology. “If I had to describe it simply, I would say that I make art about invisible realities, often using the tools of research science,” she says, and in January of last year, she was gripped by news of the novel coronavirus’ discovery. 

“I started researching: reading research papers, looking into how it was that [the virus] actually affected the human body,” she says. “How does it get into the cells? What’s its replicative life cycle?” Chaddah wanted a closer look at the structure of the various molecules associated with the progression of COVID-19 in the body, and there is, it turns out, a trove of free material online. Using animated 3-D renderings (sourced from this digital database), Chaddah began reviewing the files: blowing them up with a video projector, and using the trees in her own backyard as “a kind of green, living stage.”

Part one of IAM (the film appearing on the Aga Khan’s website) is called “Dance of the Molecules.” Recorded on Chaddah’s property in September, it features two dancers: Allie Blumas (who choreographed the piece) and Lee Gelbloom. Their bodies, along with the leafy setting, serve as a screen for Chaddah’s projections: a swirl of firecracker colour and pattern, built from found digital models. Quite literally, the viewer is looking at an illustration of how the coronavirus infects the human body and then replicates. (The very first images, for example, are close-ups of the virus’ spiky surface, she explains.) And in tandem with this molecular drama, the dancers interpret the process. 

There is a brief preview,

To watch part 1 of IAM: Dance of the Molecules, go here to the Aga Khan Museum.

Enjoy!

Being a bit curious I looked up Radha Chaddah’s website and found this on her Bio webpage (click on About tab for the dropdown menu from the Home page),

Radha Chaddah is a Toronto based visual artist and scientist. Born in Owen Sound, Ontario she studied Film and Art History at Queen’s University (BAH), and Human Biology at the University of Toronto, where she received a Master of Science in Cell and Molecular Neurobiology. 

Chaddah makes art about invisible realities like the cellular world, electromagnetism and wave form energy, using light as her primary medium.  Her work examines the interconnected themes of knowledge, illusion, desire and the unseen world. In her studio she designs projected light installations for public exhibition. In the laboratory, she uses the tools of research science to grow and photograph cells using embedded fluorescent light-emitting molecules. Her cell photographs and light installations have been exhibited across Canada and her photographs have appeared in numerous publications.  She has lectured on basic cell and stem cell biology for artists, art students and the public at OCADU [Ontario College of Art & Design University], the Ontario Science Centre, the University of Toronto and the Textile Museum of Canada.

I also found Call and Response here, the Open Fortress dance collective on the Centre de Création O Vertigo website, Henry Sansom here, and Dan Bedard here. Both Bedard and Sansom can be found on the Internet Move Database (IMDB.com), as well.

Detecting COVID-19 in under five minutes with paper-based sensor made of graphene

A Dec. 7, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announced a new technology for rapid COVID-19 testing (Note: A link has been removed),

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, testing remains a key strategy for tracking and containing the virus. Bioengineering graduate student, Maha Alafeef, has co-developed a rapid, ultrasensitive test using a paper-based electrochemical sensor that can detect the presence of the virus in less than five minutes.

The team led by professor Dipanjan Pan reported their findings in ACS Nano (“Rapid, Ultrasensitive, and Quantitative Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Using Antisense Oligonucleotides Directed Electrochemical Biosensor Chip”).

“Currently, we are experiencing a once-in-a-century life-changing event,” said Alafeef. “We are responding to this global need from a holistic approach by developing multidisciplinary tools for early detection and diagnosis and treatment for SARS-CoV-2.”

I wonder why they didn’t think to provide a caption for the graphene substrate (the square surface) underlying the gold electrode (the round thing) or provide a caption for the electrode. Maybe they assumed anyone knowledgeable about graphene would be able to identify it?

Caption: COVID-19 electrochemical sensing platform. Credit: University of Illinois

A Dec. 7, 2020 University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert) by Huan Song, which originated the news item, provides more technical detail including a description of the graphene substrate and the gold electrode, which make up the cheaper, faster COVID-19 sensing platform,

There are two broad categories of COVID-19 tests on the market. The first category uses reverse transcriptase real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and nucleic acid hybridization strategies to identify viral RNA. Current FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]-approved diagnostic tests use this technique. Some drawbacks include the amount of time it takes to complete the test, the need for specialized personnel and the availability of equipment and reagents.

The second category of tests focuses on the detection of antibodies. However, there could be a delay of a few days to a few weeks after a person has been exposed to the virus for them to produce detectable antibodies.

In recent years, researchers have had some success with creating point-of-care biosensors using 2D nanomaterials such as graphene to detect diseases. The main advantages of graphene-based biosensors are their sensitivity, low cost of production and rapid detection turnaround. “The discovery of graphene opened up a new era of sensor development due to its properties. Graphene exhibits unique mechanical and electrochemical properties that make it ideal for the development of sensitive electrochemical sensors,” said Alafeef. The team created a graphene-based electrochemical biosensor with an electrical read-out setup to selectively detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material.

There are two components [emphasis mine] to this biosensor: a platform to measure an electrical read-out and probes to detect the presence of viral RNA. To create the platform, researchers first coated filter paper with a layer of graphene nanoplatelets to create a conductive film [emphasis mine]. Then, they placed a gold electrode with a predefined design on top of the graphene [emphasis mine] as a contact pad for electrical readout. Both gold and graphene have high sensitivity and conductivity which makes this platform ultrasensitive to detect changes in electrical signals.

Current RNA-based COVID-19 tests screen for the presence of the N-gene (nucleocapsid phosphoprotein) on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In this research, the team designed antisense oligonucleotide (ASOs) probes to target two regions of the N-gene. Targeting two regions ensures the reliability of the senor in case one region undergoes gene mutation. Furthermore, gold nanoparticles (AuNP) are capped with these single-stranded nucleic acids (ssDNA), which represents an ultra-sensitive sensing probe for the SARS-CoV-2 RNA.

The researchers previously showed the sensitivity of the developed sensing probes in their earlier work published in ACS Nano. The hybridization of the viral RNA with these probes causes a change in the sensor electrical response. The AuNP caps accelerate the electron transfer and when broadcasted over the sensing platform, results in an increase in the output signal and indicates the presence of the virus.

The team tested the performance of this sensor by using COVID-19 positive and negative samples. The sensor showed a significant increase in the voltage of positive samples compared to the negative ones and confirmed the presence of viral genetic material in less than five minutes. Furthermore, the sensor was able to differentiate viral RNA loads in these samples. Viral load is an important quantitative indicator of the progress of infection and a challenge to measure using existing diagnostic methods.

This platform has far-reaching applications due to its portability and low cost. The sensor, when integrated with microcontrollers and LED screens or with a smartphone via Bluetooth or wifi, could be used at the point-of-care in a doctor’s office or even at home. Beyond COVID-19, the research team also foresees the system to be adaptable for the detection of many different diseases.

“The unlimited potential of bioengineering has always sparked my utmost interest with its innovative translational applications,” Alafeef said. “I am happy to see my research project has an impact on solving a real-world problem. Finally, I would like to thank my Ph.D. advisor professor Dipanjan Pan for his endless support, research scientist Dr. Parikshit Moitra, and research assistant Ketan Dighe for their help and contribution toward the success of this study.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rapid, Ultrasensitive, and Quantitative Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Using Antisense Oligonucleotides Directed Electrochemical Biosensor Chip by Maha Alafeef, Ketan Dighe, Parikshit Moitra, and Dipanjan Pan. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 12, 17028–17045 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c06392 Publication Date:October 20, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

I’m not sure where I found this notice but it is most definitely from the American Chemical Society: “This paper is freely accessible, at this time, for unrestricted RESEARCH re-use and analyses in any form or by any means with acknowledgement of the original source. These permissions are granted for the duration of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic.”

Why is Precision Nanosystems Inc. in the local (Vancouver, Canada) newspaper?

Usually when a company is featured in a news item, there’s some reason why it’s considered newsworthy. Even after reading the article twice, I still don’t see what makes the Precision Nanosystems Inc. (PNI) newsworthy.

Kevin Griffin’s Jan. 17, 2021 article about Vancouver area Precision Nanosystems Inc. (PNI) for The Province is interesting for anyone who’s looking for information about members of the local biotechnology and/or nanomedicine community (Note: Links have been removed),

A Vancouver nanomedicine company is part of a team using new genetic technology to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

Precision NanoSystems Incorporated is working on a vaccine in the same class the ones made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the only two COVID-19 vaccines approved by Health Canada.

PNI’s vaccine is based on a new kind of technology called mRNA which stands for messenger ribonucleic acid. The mRNA class of vaccines carry genetic instructions to make proteins that trigger the body’s immune system. Once a body has antibodies, it can fight off a real infection when it comes in contact with SARS-CoV-2, the name of the virus that causes COVID-19.

James Taylor, CEO of Precision NanoSystems, said the “revolutionary technology is having an impact not only on COVID-19 pandemic but also the treatment of other diseases.

The federal government has invested $18.2 million in PNI to carry its vaccine candidate through pre-clinical studies and clinical trails.

Ottawa has also invested another $173 million in Medicago, a Quebec-city based company which is developing a virus-like particle vaccine on a plant-based platform and building a large-scale vaccine and antibody production facility. The federal government has an agreement with Medicago to buy up to 76 million doses (enough for 38 million people) of its COVID-19 vaccine.

PNI’s vaccine, which the company is developing with other collaborators, is still at an early, pre-clinical stage.

Taylor is one of the co-founders of PNI along with Euan Ramsay, the company’s chief commercial officer.

The scientific co-founders of PNI are physicist Carl Hansen [emphasis mine] and Pieter Cullis. Cullis is also board chairman and scientific adviser at Acuitas Therapeutics [emphasis mine], the UBC biotechnology company that developed the delivery system for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

PNI, founded in 2010 as a spin-off from UBC [University of British Columbia], focuses on developing technology and expertise in genetic medicine to treat a wide range of infectious and rare diseases and cancers.

What has been described as PNI’s flagship product is a NanoAssemblr Benchtop Instrument, which allows scientists to develop nanomedicines for testing.

It’s informational but none of this is new, if you’ve been following developments in the COVID-19 vaccine story or local biotechnology scene. The $18.2 million federal government investment was announced in the company’s latest press release dated October 23, 2020. Not exactly fresh news.

One possibility is that the company is trying to generate publicity prior to a big announcement. As to why a reporter would produce this profile, perhaps he was promised an exclusive?

Acuitas Therapeutics, which I highlighted in the excerpt from Griffin’s story, has been featured here before in a November 12, 2020 posting about lipid nanoparticles and their role in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Curiously (or not), Griffin didn’t mention Vancouver’s biggest ‘COVID-19 star’, AbCellera. You can find out more about that company in my December 30, 2020 posting titled, Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist, which features a link to a video about AbCellera’s work (scroll down about 60% of the way to the subsection titled: Avo Media, The Tyee, and Science Telephone, second paragraph).

The Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist? That would be Carl Hansen, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AbCellera and co-founder of PNI. it’s such a small world sometimes.