By Margaret Magner
Special to The Guardian
Driving past the craft shops and inns of picturesque Victoria by the Sea, most visitors are intent on handmade chocolates or a special meal.
Many would be surprised to discover the sizeable building on the community’s outskirts houses a highly specialized Centre for Aqua Research and Development for Novartis Animal Health (NAH), one of its five R&D centres worldwide.
NAH is a subsidiary of Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis International with 127,000 employees and operations in some 140 countries globally.
In 2012, Novartis was ranked the world’s most admired and most environmentally-conscious pharmaceutical company (Fortune and Newsweek respectively) and is known for innovative medicines and vaccines that treat an estimated one billion patients.
Described as a “powerhouse within the tight-knit ranks of global aquaculture,” Novartis Aqua P.E.I. is an international innovator, creating vaccines and pharmaceuticals to prevent viral and bacterial fish diseases and control sea lice.
It was first in the world to license vaccines for the hematopoietic necrosis and infectious salmon anemia viruses — paramount to the recovery of the Chilean Atlantic salmon industry. The P.E.I. research team recently received a $2.6 million ACOA Atlantic Innovation Fund grant to study host-parasite interactions in cultured salmon.
The Novartis presence in P.E.I. originated with the 1980’s management buyout of a portfolio of veterinary vaccines from Canada’s Connaught Laboratories by Aqua Health Ltd. with early support from P.E.I.’s provincial government.
NAH acquired Aqua Health in 2000 and now employs 120 staff at its Victoria research facility and Charlottetown vaccine manufacturing and distribution plant. With a multi-year investment of over $29 million, NAH is unique in hosting the complete spectrum of its Aqua Health activities in P.E.I., including R&D, production, quality assurance and control, supply, and logistics.
The company is well positioned for continuing success. Aquaculture is the world’s fastest growing animal food-producing sector, outpacing global population growth and supplying some 64 million tons per year at an average annual growth rate of 8.8 per cent. With depleted wild fish stocks, aquaculture production is meeting the increasing demand for nutritious food and animal protein, with potential cultivation of new farmed species including halibut, cod, sea bass, and sea bream.
Moving to P.E.I. from the west coast of Scotland, Dr. Jason Cleaversmith, head of Novartis Aqua P.E.I., understands the positive economic impact aquaculture can have on coastal communities and is proud of his colleagues’ work identifying emerging pathogens and creating preventive vaccines.
“We supply hundreds of millions of doses each year, predominantly for salmon and trout, and with enormous global growth potential, especially in Asia, we can make a major contribution toward closing the world’s protein gap by 2050.”
Islander Erin Bentley, an NAH principal scientist, studied at Dalhousie University before working for Wyeth Vaccines Research in New York. She’s gratified to be back in P.E.I. participating in “world-class research” with a company that also values its role in the community. That ranges from the Novartis Chair in Fish Health at the Atlantic Veterinary College funded by NAH to outreach in local neighbourhoods, cleaning beachfronts, and gardening at area schools and nursing homes.
Tia Quilty, a graduate of UPEI and now a Quality Assurance Specialist with Novartis, said that her job has already provided training opportunities in the U.S. and Germany, and she feels fortunate for this opportunity so early in her career.
“The local community doesn’t realize P.E.I. plays a significant role within a prominent international company,” she said. “There’s so much potential, and the world is starting to recognize our contribution.”
Dr. Ian Thompson, director of Aqua Health R&D, who previously worked for Novartis in the U.K. and Switzerland, knows firsthand the significant value of leveraging the research relationship with Novartis International.
“The company is the number one innovator in the sector globally,” he said. “We tap into what Novartis knows through its 127,000 people.”
Thompson is also mindful of the advantage of collaborative partnerships within PEI’s bioscience cluster.
“There’s a vital community here: a critical mass of academic resources, emerging bioscience companies and funding partners. You don’t have to leave the Island to have a problem solved.”
One in a series of stories about the P.E.I. BioScience Cluster by Margaret Magner, Ph.D., who lives in Charlottetown.