Dr. Alan Bernstein is president and CEO of the global research organization CIFAR. Dr. André Veillette is a professor at the Université de Montréal and the director of the Molecular Oncology Research Unit at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute. They are both members of Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force.
Last week, Canadians were informed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Canada no longer has any domestic production capacity for vaccines. Because of this, he explained, it’s unlikely Canadians will receive vaccines before the new year. Meanwhile, our friends in Germany, Britain and the United States will likely start receiving vaccines some time in December.
How did Canada get into a situation where we can’t make enough vaccine doses to protect our own citizens? There are two forces that came together to cause our current predicament.
First, driven by the increasing cost of drugs and the rise of smaller, more innovative biotech firms, the larger pharmaceutical companies went on a merger and consolidation spree, cutting down on expensive R&D and manufacturing facilities. As Canada is a small market, we were vulnerable and consequently there was a significant hollowing out of the sector here.
Second, for decades, successive governments neglected to rebuild our vaccine manufacturing capacity, fuelled by the belief that vaccines could be purchased from elsewhere and that another pandemic with the devastation of the 1918 Spanish influenza was unlikely to happen again. But it has and here we are today.
The federal government urgently needs to correct this situation. It has made a start, but much more must be done if we are to be ready for next time. In August, Ottawa committed $126-million over two years to expand the existing National Research Council facility in Montreal. That is welcome news, but neither the current nor the expanded facility will meet Canada’s needs.
What’s urgently required is a bold new vision for pandemic preparedness that includes, at its core, an arms-length national vaccine manufacturing facility that, first and foremost, has the capacity to produce enough vaccines for every Canadian.
A national facility would also make small vaccine batches to test new vaccine ideas coming out of Canadian universities, just as the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines came out of partnerships with Harvard and Oxford, respectively. The facility could be made available to the private sector to make large batches at cost during normal times and commandeered by the federal government for large-scale vaccine deployment during a pandemic. It would also serve as a crucial training ground for the engineers and technicians needed to run these sophisticated facilities, making Canada a hub for vaccine manufacturing expertise. It would be a partnership between biopharmaceutical companies, academia and the federal government.
This facility should not be regarded as a “long-term project.” Long-term projects tend not to get done and priorities change when a new government comes on board. Rather, this should be viewed as an emergency project that must be built, starting immediately.
For who knows when the next pandemic will strike? In the past century alone, we’ve had to contend with Spanish influenza, polio, HIV, drug-resistant bacteria, Zika, H1N1, MERS, SARS, and Ebola. With air travel, intense farming practices and climate change, global outbreaks of infectious disease like COVID-19 are not once in a century events, they are increasingly likely occurrences.
In regards to COVID-19, when can Canadians expect to get the first doses of the vaccines? The good news is that Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force recommended seven different vaccines over the summer and the government now has agreements to purchase all of them. Pending approvals from Health Canada, we should start to receive the first vaccine batches between January and March next year. Now Ottawa and the provinces need to ensure that vaccine distribution and prioritization plans are in place.
Let’s hope that the shock of being caught unprepared by COVID-19 will spur new investments in pandemic preparedness, the centrepiece of which would be this national vaccine manufacturing facility. Construction of such a major facility would also help jump-start the economy and be a cornerstone of a national industrial strategy built on Canada’s considerable strengths in the life sciences.
While we can spend time criticizing what we failed to do over the past 25 years and at least four successive governments, our energy would now be better spent looking forward and making sure that we are prepared for when the next pandemic hits.
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