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published: 2021-07-08

received: 2021-07-08 13:09 (EST)

Hill Times

Words: 715

Canada needs a publicly owned facility to produce medicine and vaccines

The federal government’s failures to secure domestic production of any of the early vaccine candidates highlighted the enormous policy mistake to privatize the government-owned company, Connaught Laboratories.

by: NDP MP Brian Masse

As the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed, Canada’s economy has become more fragile and less resilient than it was, due to decades of government neglect of our domestic manufacturing sector as supply chains have been allowed to be outsourced. While many have raised these concerns for years, this public health crisis demonstrated to everyone the dangers this poses to all Canadians and the need for policy changes to address it.

Last year’s desperate scramble for personal protective equipment, gloves, masks, and gowns, revealed to most people’s shock that for basic medical supplies we were dependent on the goodwill of foreign countries that have authoritarian governments. Later with medicines and vaccines, once an area that Canada excelled in, our country’s diminished production capacity along with the federal government’s failures to secure domestic production of any of the early vaccine candidates highlighted the enormous policy mistake to privatize the government-owned company, Connaught Laboratories, once a world leader in vaccine development that produced all of Canada’s needed vaccine supply.

While the government has since invested in private companies to build vaccine production capacity, the strategy is still dependent on private firms which will always put the concerns of shareholder first rather than the public interest, as witnessed the intense lobbying by the industry to stop the relatively minor changes to the Patent Medicine Review Board procedures which will lead to reductions in the prices of drugs.

What is needed is a publicly owned firm with the capacity to produce the necessary medicines and vaccines for Canadians when they are needed. Connaught was a public health success story for decades and the 21st century version is needed now. This would avoid the struggles and challenges that have been faced during the pandemic and ensure that the public interest and the public health are the priorities rather than shareholder returns as demonstrated by the over inflated prices Canada paid for vaccines and the significant delays in receiving them. Additionally, a publicly owned company can focus on research and production of antibiotics, vaccines, treatments for rare diseases, and other necessary medicines that are usually less profitable than other drugs for chronic conditions. Furthermore, many generic drugs, which make up the majority of prescriptions, can be produced by a publicly owned firm and sold for far less than what the privately owned generic drugs firms charge Canadians, which are amongst the highest prices in the world.

Finally, many experts have revealed that most new drug developments come from publicly funded research at universities and government labs. This was illuminated by U.S. economist Mariana Mazzacuto in the Entrepreneurial State, where she wrote, “in fact, most really important really innovative new drugs, i.e. new molecular entities with priority rating, come from publicly funded laboratories.” In the current COVID-19 pandemic the fundamental research on the coronavirus “spike protein’ which is what most vaccines target, was done by US National Institute of Health (NIH) scientists.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine was developed by scientists at University of Oxford, Moderna’s by their partners at the NIH, and Pfizer’s by BioNtech which was funded with $590-million by the German government. As Connaught did in the past, a publicly owned firm would carry out basic research to ensure that Canadian scientists at our great universities, which receive close to $1-billion annually in taxpayer funded basic research support, would be able to have their publicly funded discoveries developed and produced into treatments for patients in our country.

While I have focused on biomanufacturing, the need to invest in domestic manufacturing in other sectors has come into significant relief due to the pandemic as well. The massive demand for electronic devices has created a massive semiconductor shortage that has shut down auto manufacturing and demonstrated the overreliance on a small set of companies for this essential component of many products. The U.S. government has established a fund with tens of billions of dollars to re-establish semiconductor manufacturing which has already born fruit with a new $12-billion plant to be built in Arizona. The same can be said for batteries for electric vehicles. The federal government needs to take the lead from our neighbour to south and invest in our domestic manufacturing in all these essential sectors of the economy.

NDP MP Brian Masse represents Windsor West, Ont., and is his party’s innovation, science, and economic development critic.

The Hill Times

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