Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Thursday November 26, 2020
‘We took our eye off the ball’: How Canada lost its vaccine production capacity
In the race to develop and produce a COVID-19 vaccine, Canada is on the sidelines despite its once notable status as a global source for life-saving injections.
Canada lost that standing long ago, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained this week, which means even if the country had developed its own novel coronavirus vaccine, there would be no means to produce it on the scale required.
“We used to have [production capacity] decades ago but we no longer have it,” Trudeau said Tuesday in Ottawa.
How did it get to this point? Canadian administrations simply took their “eye off the ball,” said Earl Brown, an infectious disease expert and a former member of the H1N1 vaccine task group in Canada. After that pandemic, a review found that vaccine production capacity was “right at the top” of the list of problems, he said. It wasn’t always that way.
“We had great vaccine producers in Canada — world leaders essentially — 50 years ago,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. There was Connaught Laboratories in Toronto, which was known for producing insulin to treat diabetes and inoculants for diphtheria and polio, and Institut Armand Frappier in Montreal that produced vaccines, including one for tuberculosis, he noted.
“The problem was they had a poor business model,” said Brown. “These were vaccine companies spun off from universities, so there was indirect funding and they had a model of not making so much profit.”
So they were eventually sold, Montreal’s Frappier lab to British multinational GlaxoSmithKline and Connaught, through a series of mergers, to French multinational Sanofi Pasteur after Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government’s program of privatization . The labs now have a “tighter production line and not so much capacity,” said Brown.
For those Canadian companies to mount production campaigns on their own will take time — and a lot of it, they have said. VIDO-InterVac said it has plans to build a facility in one year, but that it would take another still to get it in operating shape. “That’s not the time frame you like,” said Brown.
In the meantime, Canadians will have to rely on speedier countries with approved COVID-19 vaccines to provide doses, but Canadians won’t be prioritized ahead of their own people. “Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities, which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first,” Trudeau said on Tuesday in Ottawa.
The reliance on other countries and private companies is upsetting critics of Trudeau, who said Tuesday that his administration has begun funding domestic vaccine production capacity because “we never want to be caught short again.”
“This is gross incompetence that’s going to cost Canadians their lives and their jobs,” said Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner on Tuesday from Parliament Hill.
But criticism toward one government’s inaction may often easily be directed at another with hindsight, countered Brown on Your Morning. (CTV News)