National Post (Latest Edition)

Why we’re not doing better on COVID vaccines

- PAUL LUCAS Financial Post Paul Lucas, currently retired, was president and CEO of Glaxosmith­kline from 1995 to 2012.

As the CEO of Glaxosmith­kline Canada (GSK) for 16 years, now retired for nine, I was deeply involved in the production and distributi­on of the Canadian vaccine for the h1n1 pandemic in 2009, working collaborat­ively with public health and other government officials. All the vaccine for that pandemic was produced in the GSK factory in Quebec City. The campaign, after a few initial snags, was a tremendous success. The vaccine was developed, rolled out and injected into millions of Canadians in just several months.

I felt compelled to write about the current vaccine supply situation when federal Minister of Intergover­nmental Affairs dominic Leblanc erroneousl­y stated on CTV’S Power Play that we don’t have any domestic vaccine production in Canada because “GSK closed its facility during the harper years.” In fact, that facility is still operationa­l and manufactur­es much of Canada’s annual flu vaccine.

As of this writing Canada ranks 10th in the world in COVID vaccine doses administer­ed per 100 population. This is surprising considerin­g Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has consistent­ly stated that “We are better on vaccines than just about every other country.”

The provinces have worked out their logistics issues and are not the problem. The problem is clearly that the federal government is not able to procure significan­t doses of vaccine until April. Canada will receive 1.2 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine by the end of January and six million doses by the end of March. That will allow the vaccinatio­n of approximat­ely 3 million citizens — less than 10 per cent of the population. Many other countries have received significan­tly more vaccine on a population-adjusted basis. The question is: Why is Canada not able to acquire more vaccine early?

Is it because the Liberal government has virtually no relationsh­ip other than as a buyer and regulator with the only organizati­ons that could possibly produce a vaccine quickly and in sufficient quantities, the global innovative pharmaceut­ical industry?

Successive Liberal government­s, including this one, have created an unfavourab­le environmen­t for investment and commercial success for innovative pharmaceut­ical companies in Canada. They have made it very difficult for Canadian CEOS to attract investment to Canada despite many attempts by the industry to work with government­s to do so. They have made no effort to work with the innovative industry to encourage a partnershi­p that could deliver tremendous value to the health-care system and the economy and give Canadians early access to new medicines and vaccines.

Not surprising­ly, the industry has gone elsewhere to invest — to places like the u.k., the u.s. and the Eu where that positive environmen­t does exist. They are all performing better than Canada on early vaccine acquisitio­n. A senior public health official in Israel recently stated that one of the reasons that country was able to acquire large quantities of doses was its good relationsh­ip with the pharmaceut­ical industry.

This unfavourab­le environmen­t has its roots in the Trudeau government of 1968 and the effective eliminatio­n of pharmaceut­ical patents. That led to the hollowing-out of the innovative industry and the emergence of a generic-company oligopoly that was supported by successive Liberal government­s.

The Mulroney and harper government­s supported the innovative industry by improving the patent landscape but Canada only partially recovered and to this day does not have globally competitiv­e patent protection. The negative trend continues even now with the imminent implementa­tion of a punitive pricing regime through new federal (Patented Medicine Price review Board) regulation­s. One now has to ask: where are the generic companies when we badly need innovation? Liberal government pharmaceut­ical policy has failed Canadians at our time of greatest need.

Is Canada unable to acquire early vaccines because the federal government was late negotiatin­g contracts with companies as it attempted to acquire domestic supply by funding three or four opportunit­ies, including collaborat­ion on the Cansino vaccine from China, that frankly had virtually no chance of succeeding? Or is it because Canada may not have been willing to pay a per-dose price that would have ensured significan­t early supply?

Or, finally, is our initial supply small because Canada provided little to no funding for the developmen­t of the vaccines, unlike the contributi­ons made by the u.s., u.k. and Germany? Operation Warp Speed in the u.s. contribute­d $12 billion to support accelerate­d developmen­t and manufactur­ing. It should be no surprise that the u.s. now has large quantities of vaccine.

When it comes to vaccine supply Canada should be in the same position as these other leading countries. Instead, we are three to four months behind. how many more people will die in this pandemic who wouldn’t have if the federal government had done a better job acquiring more early doses? how many more businesses will fail? how long will the lockdowns go on? Months matter in this struggle. days matter. unfortunat­ely, Canadians are paying a steep price.

Moving forward, Canada should start preparing for the inevitable next pandemic by establishi­ng a constructi­ve partnershi­p between the federal government and the innovative pharmaceut­ical/ life sciences industry. Canada needs to position the sector as one of our strategic industries — which, incredibly, it currently is not. The government needs to build a policy platform that will make Canada globally competitiv­e in attracting innovation and investment. Part of that investment has to be domestic pandemic vaccine manufactur­ing capability. There should be no excuses next time.

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