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We need a public authority to manufacture vaccines in Canada

BY PETER EWART and DAWN HEMINGWAY

Special to the Daily News

As has become glaringly obvious, Canada does not have a public, self-reliant health authority to research and manufacture COVID-19 vaccines and other medical technology.  All of the COVID-19 vaccines currently being used in Canada are manufactured across the ocean in Europe by giant global pharmaceutical companies known for their scandals and rapaciousness.

In that regard, the European Union (EU) has recently threatened to impose export restrictions on these COVID-19 vaccines which could dramatically affect vaccine availability in non-EU countries, resulting in increased illness and mortality.  According to the EU, Canada will not be affected.  However, the fact remains that the EU and the pharmaceutical companies have this power in this one sided relationship. 

In addition, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which the federal government has a contract with to supply millions of vaccine doses, has recently announced that it is delaying shipments of the vaccine to Canada.  Pfizer claims that the delay is because it is retooling its manufacturing facilities in Europe and that supply to all its client countries will be affected. 

However, according to various reports, Canada is at the back of the line in terms of priority, as European Union countries are not experiencing the same amount of delay, i.e., one week instead of Canada’s four weeks. This is an interesting “coincidence” given that Pfizer and the federal government have been in an ongoing dispute for some months over tax breaks that the pharmaceutical company is demanding.  In addition, Pfizer is critical of Canada’s demand to reduce tax avoidance by global multinationals in general.

Federal minister Anita Anand would not explain why Canada was being singled out (1).  However, according to economist Tony Sanger, Pfizer’s demands “are pretty aggressive” and disturbing, as the company is pushing for the tax breaks “at a time when they basically hold the cure” to the COVID-19 epidemic.  “It’s not a gun to the head,” he said, but rather “a needle to the arms” (2). Compounding the problem is that “Canada has not even negotiated the right to manufacture doses of [the vaccine] here at home” (3).

According to a member of Canada’s Vaccine Task Force, the country’s biopharmaceutical industry has been “hollowed out” over the past 25 years with the big pharmaceutical companies pulling out much of their funding for research and development, resulting in Canada becoming a research “backwater.”  According to the Globe and Mail, “innovation in Canada’s life science sector happens less and less in the labs of foreign-based multinationals and more and more among a small number of homegrown biopharma startups, which now account for the bulk of drug research and development in this country” (4).  As an alternative, the federal government has funded a number of smaller vaccine research and manufacturing initiatives, including one by Canadian-based Providence Therapeutics which expects to have a vaccine by 2022 and another by Quebec-based Medicago.  Both are privately-owned corporations.

As a solution, some are pushing for some kind of negotiated settlement with Big Pharma that would see the Canadian government withdraw its attempts to regulate drug prices and impose tax increases in return for the pharmaceutical companies ramping up their research and development funding in Canada.

The problem with such “solutions” is that they put crucial health research & development in the hands of narrow private interests which do not coincide with the public interest.  Indeed, there is nothing to stop corporations from amassing government funding and then pulling up stakes and leaving the country as has happened too many times in the past.  And then, as described above, there is the corporate blackmail problem.

Instead, as part of a nation-building project, Canada needs a self-reliant public authority that can research and manufacture vaccines and other medical technology and that is not at the mercy of Big Pharma.  In that regard, much of the infrastructure and personnel already exists at universities and public research institutions across the country. 

There will be more pandemics in the future.  As a country, we need a new direction for health research and development, one which puts public interest first.

Peter Ewart is a writer based in Prince George, British Columbia.  He can be reached at peter.ewart@shaw.ca.  Dawn Hemingway is an educator also based in Prince George.  She can be reached at dehemingway49@gmail.com    

  1. Tasker, John. “Canada won’t receive any Pfizer shots next week.” CBC News. January 21, 2021.
  2. Curry, Bill. “Pfizer pushes for tax breaks in 2021 federal budget.” The Globe and Mail. January 19, 2021.
  3. Boyd, Alex. “Why Canada can’t make its own COVID-19 vaccine – and how to ‘fix’ the problem before the next pandemic.” The Star. November 25, 2020.
  4. Yakabuski, Konrad. “Ottawa needs to seal a new deal with Big Pharma.” The Globe and Mail. January 27, 2021.

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