It’s been said time and again in recent months, but it bears repeating: The development of COVID-19 vaccines now being deployed testifies to the collaboration and innovation of industries and governments. It underscores the art of the possible. Of the countless concerns the pandemic has created, access to these vaccines, as well as treatments and diagnostics, remains at the forefront of leaders’ minds. We saw this at the G7 summit over the weekend.
For some countries, timely access to COVID vaccines is being buoyed by strong domestic pharmaceutical research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and excellent industry-government relationships. Israel and the U.K. come to mind. In Canada, we have an opportunity to better prepare for the inevitable need of these medicines in future. By strengthening our capacity to manufacture our own pharmaceuticals, we’d be less reliant on massive procurement efforts in a pandemic situation. Canadians would have early access to medicines, and our country could become a global leader in the field.
But access to new medicines isn’t only about responding to global pandemics.
Our guarded optimism while waiting for vaccine deliveries from abroad gives us all a sense of what Canadians living with a rare disease endure while waiting for the latest treatment to be made available here. That’s why it’s critical that industry, government, and all health-care stakeholders work together to enhance Canada’s life-sciences sector, which includes our domestic R&D and biomanufacturing capacity.
But to build a strong and sustainable life-sciences sector, we need to “start with a stop.” That’s why Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC) urged the federal government to stop the implementation of the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board’s regulatory changes, which are scheduled to take effect July 1.
Simply put, these changes will have unfortunate consequences that will put Canada and Canadians at a disadvantage.
Reducing certain drug prices by 40 to 90 per cent will further disincentivize businesses to introduce new products to, or make investments in, Canada’s market. Driving business away from Canada also means fewer clinical trials, less homegrown R&D — and, most important, less access by Canadians to the newest medicines. As things stand now, Canadians only have access to 48 per cent of all new medicines available globally.
There’s much to gain by pausing to assess these impacts, and even more to gain by positioning Canada to compete and rise as a global life-sciences leader. Economically, we’re starting from a good footing.
In April, Statistics Canada released a report on the contribution of pharmaceutical activity to Canada’s economy. The report shows that Canada’s innovative pharmaceutical sector supports more than 100,000 high-value, full time jobs. It also generates close to $15 billion in economic activity in Canada, and invests nearly $2 billion in R&D.
Canada is in an enviable position, and should play to its strengths.
We have universities and colleges with recognized medical, biomedical, software, and computer-engineering faculties. We have expertise in high-quality clinical trials, and existing biopharmaceutical clusters in Ontario and Quebec. We have solid public health-care systems and infrastructure. And we have emerging innovation clusters in regenerative medicine, oncology, infectious diseases, metabolic diseases, neurodegeneration, artificial intelligence, stem-cell therapy, genomics, and personalized medicine.
IMC members also have significant partnerships with Canadian hospitals and universities. According to Statistics Canada, 90 per cent of the $144 million in R&D outsourced to Canadian hospitals and universities by innovative pharmaceutical companies came from IMC members.
Positive acknowledgment in the 2021 federal budget, along with Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne’s commitment to strengthen biomanufacturing in Canada, are encouraging steps. In essence, we have the makings of an attractive country in which to invest, and the opportunity to work collaboratively to build a strong life-sciences sector.
It starts with government, industry, the research community, patient groups, and others working together to address years of public policy decisions that have made Canada less attractive to industry investment and commercial activity. Specifically, it requires that we work collectively to address the fundamental issues that: discourage greater investment, repel R&D that spurs innovation, and threaten clinical trials and access to medicine in Canada.
As vaccines unlock economies worldwide, we witness the power of accessible vaccines and the benefits of resilient working relationships.
Right now, Canada is losing out on the value of having a strong life-sciences sector that includes greater co-operation between government and industry. Let’s not abandon the potential of more high-paying jobs, homegrown R&D — and, most important, life-saving treatments for Canadians.
The development of COVID-19 vaccines has shown the world the art of the possible. Now it’s time for Canada to do the same.
Pamela Fralick is president of Innovative Medicines Canada, an industry association that works with members and communities to ensure Canadians have access to the medicines they need, when they need them.
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