Living/Working November 13, 2020


November 13, 2020

B.C. biotech plays key role in vaccine breakthrough

Acuitas Therapeutics’ technology helps make Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine a reality

Researchers with Acuitas Therapeutics have been working seven days a week since February to help contribute to a successful COVID-19 vaccine | Submitted

News of a prototype COVID-19 vaccine showing a 90% effective rate at thwarting the novel coronavirus has sent global stock markets into a frenzy, but few people know that a Vancouver company is playing a key role in making the vaccine a reality.

U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) and Germany’s BioNTech SE (Nasdaq:BNTX) last week announced that its vaccine has proven to be highly effective in early testing against COVID-19.

But without Vancouver-based Acuitas Therapeutics, none of that potential success may have been possible. Acuitas, founded by research veteran Thomas Madden more than a decade ago, developed the lipid nanoparticle technology (LNP) that allows the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine’s “messenger RNA” (mRNA) technology to work.

“With mRNA, what we are doing is providing instructions to the cells in our body to make a component – a protein on the surface – of the COVID-19 virus,” said Madden, president and CEO of Acuitas. “And when our body produces that protein, our immune system recognizes it as being foreign and produces a response against it.”

The challenge, Madden said, is that, when injected, mRNA is easily broken down by the body. The mRNA also cannot enter human body cells without help. Enter Acuitas’s LNP technology, which essentially acts as a delivery vehicle for the mRNA to travel through the human body and enter the cells unharmed.

Madden said Vancouver is highly regarded within the global bio-sciences community for its LNP delivery technology. That reputation began when University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers – specifically leading nanomedicine researcher Pieter Cullis – led the world’s first LNP technology research effort.

Madden was a UBC faculty member in the same research realm, and Acuitas, which was founded in 2009 and now has 29 employees, is the latest company in a long line of firms that attempted to commercialize LNP.

“We have a concentration of talent and expertise in this area that is second to none, and it’s only now with COVID-19 that there’s a broader recognition of how important a contribution a Vancouver company is making to the development of this vaccine,” Madden said. “As part of that larger team, we’ve been developing this for many, many years, and several companies have been spun out of the research being done at UBC.”

He added that another two ongoing COVID vaccine projects – one with CureVac, another with the Imperial College of London – are working with Acuitas on LNP delivery systems for their versions of the medicine.

CureVac had been working with Acuitas on using LNP for a new rabies vaccine prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, and Madden said the market will soon see many more medical uses of Acuitas’ technology beyond the current pandemic.

“One of the strengths of this technology is that it is very easy to generate a message based on any protein that you would want to express,” Madden said. “So in the event that there’s a new viral threat, as soon as we have sequenced that virus, we can quickly make an mRNA to express one of the virus’s proteins as a vaccine candidate.”

He noted that Pfizer has indicated it will complete its data collection by the end of November. Regulatory agencies might therefore begin assessing the product before the end of the year.

The challenge in getting the vaccine to the general public, Madden said, will be manufacturing, which could take months to gear up. But he is also hopeful that the Pfizer vaccine will not be the only one approved for production by that time, and the parallel development/production of a wide range of vaccines along different supply chains will accelerate its availability worldwide.

“It think it certainly provides an excellent example of how a company can thrive in the Vancouver area,” he said of Acuitas’ COVID-related success. “It shows how academic roots can be translated very successfully to commercial and technical success. At the same time, I think we have to realize that Vancouver is not a biotechnology hub. We lack some of the other components that really foster the entrepreneurial development here.”

Those components, he said, include the venture capital needed to nurture startups.

Madden noted that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine news was a watershed moment for the Vancouver firm’s researchers.

“Our team has been working since February, seven days a week, as many hours in a day as they can, all to support the development of these vaccines. It’s been an amazing couple of days.” •


B.C. needs strategy now to deal with pandemic restrictions fatigue

It is good that the premier and his health minister, and not the public health officer, have taken the lead in enforcing discipline in how the province is behaving during the pandemic.

Dr. Bonnie Henry had this role foisted on her, and it is more properly the domain of John Horgan and Adrian Dix to summon the necessary authority so that we paint inside the lines instead of taking the Jackson Pollock approach. Still, we seem to be asking and not ordering.

Even so, the enforcement is only part of the picture and misses an important point about why so many people seem so willing to take so many risks and put so many others in possible harm’s way.

It isn’t simply that they are flagrant offenders, it’s also possible that they’re flagging offenders. The violations of the guidelines might be their mental fatigue with restrictions coming out sideways and at times incomprehensibly.

The pandemic was called a marathon early on, and now we are finding that it wears on you the way a marathon wears on you. You might think you’re sufficiently resilient to scale the beckoning hill or defy the headwind, and physically you might be right – it’s the mental capacity that’s insufficient. It’s a big reason, in my experience as a lamentable runner, that you hit the wall. And once you’ve hit it, good luck getting through it.

I’ve lost count of the businesspeople who have told me in recent weeks that, around the time the skies turned grey this autumn, there was a perceptible swing in the mood, motivation and methods within their operations. There was an evident sag in any swagger people had.

The coping capacity so evident in the summer gave way to a forlorn resignation of the restrictions to recreation that cold weather brings on. It was another phase of this marathon, one we all know will not get prettier. But, much as the province has focused on financial assistance and economic recovery, we have been left mostly to our own devices on our mental health. We are all agreeing there is a challenge and all agreeing we haven’t got a full-fledged plan.

The province is providing some very useful online resources, but the range of coaching and counselling is a second-best strategy when we have been restricted in our socializing for more than eight months. While businesses have stepped in with third-party services for their workforces, government set the rules and now has an obligation to see those rules through with a framework for mental health maintenance.

There are easy starting points. Much as the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health Authority boundaries are now under a two-week curtailment, the province is going to have to relent in much of British Columbia on one-size-fits-all edicts. There are parts of the province that have just not known the pandemic, yet they’re pinned down in the same way that the most infectious regions are. Part of the frustration I hear from businesses in those non-pandemic places is that the application of rules is mentally wearying, piling on resentment on the economic penalties.

Even in regions with a high case count, the province is going to have to find its ingenuity to navigate the risk of infection against the risks that come with loneliness, depression and other mental health challenges. A daily case count is important to understand, but so would be the support at our disposal. We have been far better at calculating the hard business losses than the declines in our productivity and commitment that are the features in good times due to positive mental health. Perhaps because there are no easy answers, we are not trying to answer the difficult questions of how we keep people from regressing.

A second opportunity is for the Horgan government to do much more with the cabinet portfolio it created in the last term on mental health and addictions. The first version felt like a weak subsidiary of the health portfolio, yet in the pandemic it ought to be given more of a mandate tethered not only to health but finance ministries to recognize the social and economic value of a mental health strategy in this and future pandemics.

What is clear is that we are hitting the wall far earlier in this marathon than might be typical. Government commitment will need to be tangible, not just for those who have experienced mental health challenges but those entering unfamiliar territory. Nothing short of a holistic health approach will position the province post-pandemic. To date, unfortunately, the words and deeds are falling short. The restrictions are compounding problems, but a strategy would be a welcome sign. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media



You can pitch your best podcast idea to influential producers at the upcoming Vancouver Podcast Festival

VanPodFest, presented by DOXA, returns later this month with a new virtual format, featuring a variety of free and pay-what-you-can events

Learn how to monetize your podcast, participate in live pod recordings and pitch your best ideas to producers at the upcoming Vancouver Podcast Festival, taking place virtually this November | Photo: Courtesy of Vancouver Podcast Festival

Podcasts may have lost their starring role when commuters ditched highways and public transit in favour of their living rooms and home offices this spring—eliminating the need for in-car entertainment—but that doesn't mean Canada's most popular podcasts have lost any fans. 

Nowadays, it's a safe bet that most podcast-listening is happening at home. Podcast fans can similarly celebrate their favourite pods  from the comfort of their homes when the Vancouver Podcast Festival returns for the third consecutive year. 

The five-day festival, presented by DOXA, is going virtual this year, taking place online from Wednesday, Nov. 18 to Sunday, Nov. 22. The schedule will be packed with a mix of live events, workshops and panels, as well as VanPodFest’s first-ever pitch session. That event will give Vancouver podcasters the opportunity to pitch their best ideas and get feedback from the executive producers responsible for some of the country's biggest podcast networks—think CBC Podcasts, TELUS STORYHIVE, and Canadaland, to name just a few. To that end, the festival's roster is also set to feature a wide variety of acclaimed creators, hosts, and producers. 

“Vancouver Podcast Festival (at home) may look a little different, but we’re excited to continue showcasing the best storytellers and audio producers from around Vancouver, Canada, and the globe,” said Hannah McGregor, one of the festival's programming committee members, in a release.

“Our pared down online programming has a little bit of something for everyone, whether you’re a brand new podcaster looking to pitch your ideas, a producer trying to put together a great show despite social distancing, or a fan excited to see your favourite podcasters live.”

Some highlights from the festival's schedule include Michelle Shephard of the Brainwashed podcast in conversation with CBC's Ian Hanomansing, as well as live recordings of Sandy & Nora Talk Politics and Pop Chat. Attendees can also take part in a workshop dubbed "How to Monetize Your Podcast," and observe a Producer's Rountable where a group of high-level producers will talk about the challenges of producing podcasts virtually, sharing tips about how to produce a studio-quality podcast from home. 

Among participating podcasters are Elamin Abdelmahmoud (Pop Chat, Party Lines, Party in the USA), Andréa Schmidt (Canadaland), Lauren Bercovitch and Chris Kelly (This Sounds Serious, Kelly&Kelly Studios), Laura Palmer (Island Crime: Where is Lisa?) and more.

“Like documentary film, podcasting continues to exemplify the kind of creative and critical commentary needed to help us make sense of these increasingly complex and challenging times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic," added Selina Crammond, DOXA's director of programming, in the release. "We’re excited to connect with a range of podcast makers, thinkers and listeners during our third annual VanPodFest–at home edition." 

The 2020 Vancouver Podcast Festival ('At Home' Edition) 

Where: Online at

When: Wednesday, Nov. 18 to Sunday, Nov. 22

Cost: Prices for individual events range from free or pay-what-you-can to $5 (students/seniors/reduced income) and $10 (adults) per ticketed event. Full festival passes can be purchased for $25. 

Vancouver Is Awesome


This new downtown Vancouver restaurant draws inspiration from Chinese street food

For a set price, customers can order as many dishes as they want from featured rotating menus at this unique new modern Chinese restaurant in Vancouver

A dim sum selection is among the dishes available for customers to order at Street Auntie | Photo: Courtesy of Street Auntie Aperitivo House

Offering diners a fresh approach to modern Chinese fare, a new restaurant set to open its doors in downtown Vancouver is taking inspiration from the rich legacy of street fare in Yunnan province.

Called Street Auntie Aperitivo House, owner Yuyina Zhang's new venture is located at 1039 Granville St in a space that had previously been the Vietnamese restaurant Timon.

Zhang says she is drawing from a childhood spent knowing local street food vendors affectionately as "Street Aunties." 


At Street Auntie, customers pay per person and can choose as many dishes as they want from a weekly rotating menu. Photo courtesy Street Auntie Aperitivo House

“The fond memories I have of the Street Aunties I knew as a child – and who are still a warm and welcome sight for hungry passersby – were a true source of inspiration for me,” says Zhang, “I can’t wait to help bring people in Vancouver together to experience an upscale and immersive street-food experience while enjoying great company at Street Auntie.”

Set prices, rotating menus

To reflect the diversity of dishes sold on Yunnan streets, Street Auntie will take a unique approach to create a dining experience for guests. 


The food at Street Auntie is inspired by vendors in China's Yunnan region. Photo courtesy Street Auntie Aperitivo House

Diners will be able to choose as many dishes as they wish from a weekly rotating menu, during a one-hour dine-in meal, priced per person at $38 during lunch, and $58 for dinner. During opening week, Nov. 25 through Dec. 2, for example, diners will be offered the Ocean Auntie Menu and can choose from dishes such as Crispy fish skin with duck egg-yolk; Yunnan ghost chicken; a dim sum basket, Spicy crispy garlic fried soft shell crab; as well as sweet items for dessert, among others.

Customers wishing to do take-out can order curated take-home boxes featuring three courses and dessert for $28.


Menus will rotate weekly at Street Auntie. Photo courtesy Street Auntie Aperitivo House

Street Auntie will launch on Nov. 25 and will be open Wednesdays through Mondays for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. Pre-paid reservations for tables of up to six guests can be made now online. 

Vancouver Is Awesome



The biggest Christmas store in Western Canada is now open in Metro Vancouver

In addition to a wide selection of merchandise, they have a number of intricate displays

The largest Christmas store in Western Canada has already opened its doors to customers for the holiday season, offering a wild and unique selection of festive gift and decorating ideas | Photo: The Christmas Store at Potters

While the spooky season may have just came to its eerie end, the most magical time of the year is nearly upon us. 

The largest Christmas store in Western Canada has already opened its doors to customers for the holiday season, offering a wild and unique selection of festive gifts and decorating ideas. 

Located in South Surrey, the 28,000-square-foot Potters Nursery garden centre has been transformed into The Christmas Store where customers can find thousands of holiday-related items. The Potters team says they spend the entire year searching the globe for unique merchandise, which makes their selection so diverse. Some of the items include ornaments, designer trees, collectibles, stocking stuffers, food items and much more.

In addition to a wide selection of merchandise, Potters says they have a number of intricate displays, such as the Enchanted Fairy Garden that greets all who enter. Or, you can venture into the 3,000-square-foot Dark Room, illuminated by more than 75 different Christmas-themed canvas paintings and more than 60 different Christmas-themed water lanterns. 


Photo by Lindsay William-Ross/Vancouver Is Awesome

There is also a new Bee Tree (an upside-down tree featuring a giant honeycomb and bee-themed ornaments), as well as the returning Ice Cream Tree (a white tree with a three-foot scoop of “ice cream” at the top, complemented by ornaments in the shape of ice cream cones, donuts, cupcakes and more). Also returning this year is WhoVille, an entire section devoted to Grinch-themed items, including teddy bears, ornaments, mugs and snow globes.

The massive shop also includes an impressive inventory of toys, jigsaw puzzles, games, Coca-Cola collectibles (including ornaments and figures), Christmas stockings (more than 50 styles), and unique items for those hard-to-buy-for adults. 

For the foodies in your life, the Gourmet Food area offers thousands of rare and special products, including hot chocolate from Montreal’s Gourmet Village (available in seven different colours and flavours); dessert toppings (including ice cream sauces in tasty flavours such as Banana Bread); locally-made jellies and syrups from Krause Berry Farms and The Preservatory; maple syrup and maple butter from Muskoka Lodge; and for the first time this year, Dr. Henry Whisky BBQ Sauce, created by local Chef Ann Kirsebom in honour of Dr. Bonnie Henry (100% of proceeds from every bottle will go to the BC COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund). 


Photo: The Christmas Store at Potters

COVID-19 Considerations 

"Store management and staff have implemented safe shopping protocols, including reduced occupancy, temperature checks, hand-sanitizing stations placed throughout the store, widened and one-way aisles, check-out lanes with clearly marked distancing lines, and Plexiglas screens at every cashier desk," says Potters.

" All visitors are requested to wear a mask and respect physical-distancing guidelines."

Find out more about Potters, here

The Christmas Store at Potters is located at 19158 48th Ave. in Surrey. They are open daily through December 24, Saturday to Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Vancouver Is Awesome


What are we reading? November 12, 2020

Getty Images

Each week, BIV staff will share with you some of the interesting stories we have found from around the web.


Mark Falkenberg, deputy managing editor:

This piece deftly expresses the sheer relief of the U.S. election result. Sample: “Our Canadian neighbors will no longer feel like the family that accidentally bought the apartment over the meth lab.”

Check. And: “Joe Biden’s win is like finding out the tumor is benign.” – Vogue


Long-term seniors’ care across Canada is regulated by a patchwork of rules that differ from province to province. The pandemic, however, has made it plain that the federal government needs to step in with a countrywide set of standards, says a seniors’ advocacy group. – Canada’s National Observer


Timothy Renshaw, managing editor:

There's more value in that old mobile phone than your email string to old classmates from 20 years ago. How about close to US$2 billion in gold, silver and other precious metals? – reBuy


Insights into current costs of renewable power compared with its non-renewable counterparts. – ArsTechnica


In case you need a refresher in swearing, here's a quick look at curse words through the centuries. – Discover


Talk about star power: how about two trillion galaxies each with at least 400 billion stars? Here's what it looks like. – SYFY