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Aled Edwards is chief executive at the Structural Genomics Consortium and Max Morgan is chief policy officer and general counsel at the Structural Genomics Consortium.

The pandemic has highlighted the extent to which Canadians and citizens of most other nations on earth are at the mercy of a small handful of foreign governments and companies for access to critical new vaccines and medicines. The concentration of R&D, manufacturing capacity, and control over intellectual property outside our borders leaves Canada having to pay exorbitant sums to negotiate access. Poorer countries have to outright beg for it.

This state of affairs is neither equitable nor in our best interests. Our government policy must respond appropriately.

The answer is to adopt a new pharmaceutical policy based on open science. For decades, Canadian industrial policy has been designed to position us as a global player in the pharmaceutical world by emulating the proprietary, intellectual property-intensive, and venture capital-driven model in the U.S. This policy plays well politically, but it is fantasy.

Our country’s research and innovation investments comprise less than 2 per cent of the global spend; more than 98 per cent of future medicines and vaccines, including those for the next pandemic, will be invented elsewhere and controlled by others. It is already happening. The U.S. government announced they are investing $4-billion into developing anti-viral pills for COVID-19. For perspective, this alone is what the entire Canadian economy spends on all biomedical and pharmaceutical research annually.

We simply cannot compete on scale, but there is a way to ensure Canadians and citizens in other nations, including poorer ones, have fair access to future vaccines and drugs. What Canada needs is to build an ecosystem that pools resources with other countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and establishes a distributed, shared-cost model for inventing, manufacturing and distributing new vaccines and medicines.

To guard against vaccine or therapy nationalism, participants in this ecosystem must commit up-front that any intellectual property for resulting products is controlled collectively, and licensed to manufacturers under terms that require equitable and affordable pricing.

A made-in-Canada model of open drug discovery and development can serve as the innovation engine for such an ecosystem. The Structural Genomics Consortium, led from Canada, is the pioneer of this model. It invents and disseminates enabling research tools and data for novel targets in the human genome. Instead of constantly haggling over IP ownership and imposing confidentiality restrictions on its partners, the SGC collaborates openly with a broad range of institutions in academia and industry, who all agree to make the outputs available without restriction. These public domain assets can in turn be rapidly parlayed into drug discovery programs.

M4K Pharma, a Canadian company spun out from the SGC, is using open science collaboration to advance novel candidates for the treatment of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma – a rare but uniformly fatal pediatric brain cancer. The company is committed to affordable pricing and any profits will be donated to charity to advance future open science drug discovery programs.

And now VIMI – the Viral Interruption Medicines Initiative – has been founded in Canada to deploy open science partnerships to invent new medicines against viral families of future pandemic potential.

Like all successful programs, open and collaborative drug discovery initiatives must be actively co-ordinated and well managed. And they can be. The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) successfully leveraged a distributed network of collaborators to develop a transformative new treatment for sleeping sickness at a fraction of the cost of traditional drug discovery programs.

Likewise, Canada can lead the way in a collective of firms, governments, universities and philanthropies to jointly advance open drug and vaccine development, and manufacturing. Not only would this capacity enable us to better serve Canadians through better access to essential therapies, but it would also be a critical receptor for future vaccines and medicines developed through a new open science ecosystem.

Importantly, a move towards a more inclusive and equitable pharmaceutical innovation ecosystem based on open science should actively involve scientists and institutions from the global south – countries that not only are most burdened by disease, including pandemics, but also that have the greatest pool of untapped talent.

With the experience of COVID-19, it is time to reflect on Canada’s approach to drug discovery. Our country needs to decide if it is truly in our national interest to continue to play a losing game dominated by much larger economies or if we are better served by leveraging our resources towards a system that is more open and equitable.

If Canada is to move towards the latter position, we should start in high priority areas of market failure and therapeutic need, such as pandemic preparedness, antibiotics and pediatric diseases. There is no reason to believe, however, that a new, Canadian-led open drug discovery ecosystem wouldn’t be successful in all therapeutic areas.

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