Canada needs to step up its biopharmaceutical game
It has been said over and over again over the past few months, but it needs to be repeated: The development of COVID-19 vaccines that are now being used is a testament to the collaboration and innovation of industries and governments. It underlines the art of the possible. Of the myriad of concerns raised by the pandemic, access to these vaccines, as well as to treatments and diagnoses, remain at the fore of heads of state and government. We saw that at the G7 summit over the weekend.
In some countries, timely access to COVID vaccines is promoted by strong domestic pharmaceutical research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and excellent industry-government relationships. I think of Israel and Great Britain. In Canada, we have the opportunity to better prepare for the inevitable need for these drugs in the future. By strengthening our capacities to manufacture our own pharmaceuticals, we would be less dependent on massive procurement efforts in a pandemic situation. Canadians would have early access to medicines and our country could become a world leader in this area.
However, access to new drugs is not just about responding to global pandemics.
Our cautious optimism while waiting for vaccine deliveries from abroad gives us all a sense of what Canadians with a rare disease have to endure while waiting for the latest treatment to be available here. Because of this, it is important that industry, government and all health care players work together to improve Canada’s life science sector, which includes our domestic R&D and bio-manufacturing capabilities.
But to build a strong and sustainable life sciences sector, we have to “start with a stop”. Therefore Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC) demanded the federal government halt the implementation of the regulatory changes to the patented drug pricing review board due to take effect on July 1st.
Simply put, these changes will have unfortunate consequences that will put Canada and Canadians at a disadvantage.
Lowering certain drug prices by 40 to 90 percent will further deter companies from introducing or investing in new products in the Canadian market. The displacement of business from Canada also means fewer clinical trials, less in-house research and development – and most importantly, less access for Canadians to the latest drugs. As things stand, Canadians only have access to 48 percent of all new drugs available worldwide.
There is much to be gained from stopping to assess this impact, and even more so when positioning Canada to compete and rise as a global leader in the life sciences. We start economically on a good basis.
Statistics Canada published in April a report on Contribution of pharmaceutical activity to the Canadian economy. The report shows that Canada’s innovative pharmaceutical sector supports more than 100,000 high quality full-time jobs. It also generates nearly $ 15 billion in economic activity in Canada and invests nearly $ 2 billion in research and development.
Canada are in an enviable position and should play to their 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 systems and infrastructure. And we have new innovation clusters in the fields of 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 percent of the $ 144 million R&D outsourced to Canadian hospitals and universities by innovative pharmaceutical companies came from IMC members.
The positive recognition in the 2021 federal budget and the commitment of the Minister for Innovation, Science and Industry, Francois-Philippe Champagne, to strengthening organic production in Canada are encouraging steps. Essentially, we have what it takes to be an attractive country to invest in and the opportunity to work together to build it a strong life sciences sector.
It starts with government, industry, the research community, patient groups, and others working together to address years of policy making that have made Canada less attractive to industrial investment and commercial activity. In particular, it requires that we work collectively to address the fundamental issues that: discourage major investment, stave off research and development that drives innovation, and threaten clinical trials and access to medicines in Canada.
As vaccines tap economies around the world, we are witnessing the power of accessible vaccines and the benefits of resilient working relationships.
Right now Canada is losing the value of a strong life sciences sector that includes greater government-industry collaboration. Let’s not give up the potential of high paying jobs, indigenous R&D, and most importantly, life saving treatments for Canadians.
The development of COVID-19 vaccines has shown the world the art of the possible. Now is the time for Canada to do the same.
The photo for this column was changed on June 17th after it was published.
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 at all times.
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