Amidst concerns related to the emergence of COVID-19 variants and the challenge of vaccinating Canadians and the global population more broadly, whichever party forms the government on Sept. 20 will need to quickly dedicate strategic thinking and resources to the less immediate but equally important imperative of preparing for future pandemic like events most experts predict will happen.
In hindsight, the COVID-19 pandemic should not have been the surprise it was. Long before its arrival, scientific experts had repeatedly cautioned governments globally regarding the real possibility of a viral pandemic. Most warnings went unheeded or were met with a minimal response. Accordingly, when it arrived, governments globally found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to build the plane while in flight. After eighteen months of solving for COVID-19 on the fly, it is clear there is now a strong desire to avoid repeating the experience and prepare now for COVID-30 or whatever other global health threat may emerge down the road. The next government will need to recognize the strategic importance of being home to a strong life sciences industry.
Thankfully, Canada’s biotech ecosystem, which is national in scope and includes a diverse mix of early-stage companies, universities, incubators/accelerators, research centres, investors, and multinational pharmaceutical/biotech companies, is a solid foundation upon which to build. Indeed, the critical role the Canadian early-stage biotech company Acuitas played in the Pfizer mRNA vaccine, and the acceleration of several other COVID-focused Canadian technologies/companies including AbCellera Biologics, VBI Vaccines, Precision NanoSystems, VIDO, Medicago, and IMV during the pandemic, all demonstrates the enormous potential the ecosystem represents in not only addressing future challenges but also delivering significant economic benefits in the process.
Importantly, from a bio-manufacturing/vaccine perspective, Canada is also well-positioned
with two existing large scale, established commercial facilities in Sanofi-Pasteur (Toronto) and GSK (Québec City) and the soon to be built Moderna facility (location to be determined). In addition, the Canadian companies of Medicago (currently building its new Quebec City facility for its plant-based vaccine technology) and BIOVECTRA (with facilities in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia) are both important bio-manufacturing assets. All told, there is in place a valuable bio-manufacturing base in Canada which can also be built upon going forward. Investing more in enhancing this foundation will not only help meet the preparedness objective, but if
done strategically, it can also generate and support the development and growth of early-stage Canadian biotech companies.
But it is important to recognize Canada is not alone in this quest. Not surprisingly, the pandemic has focused the attention of many governments globally on the importance of building strong domestic biotech sectors. Correspondingly, governments are developing
strategies and investing to attract companies, investment, and talent to advance their biotech sectors. If Canada is to attract its share of the critical investment and talent needed to grow companies, then it must keep pace with other nations. To that end, Canada’s competitive
position would be significantly enhanced by federal and provincial governments strategically partnering with industry to coordinate and leverage their investments and policies. In addition, the sector’s overall competitiveness would be greatly enhanced by governments
taking steps to modernize and coordinate regulatory oversight of the sector.
This presents a timely opportunity for the government to abandon the traditional siloed policy approach for industry in exchange for a more holistic model which would embrace multinational companies as strategic partners and investors in the ecosystem. For Canada to be ready for the next pandemic, the government will need to not only strategically invest in the ecosystem but also partner with global companies and ensure whatever capacity is developed is commercially viable in non-pandemic times and supports the growth of Canada’s ecosystem.
While uncertainty of the variants over the near term and need to prepare for future pandemics
presents obvious challenges there are significant benefits to identifying and developing the important solutions the biotech sector can deliver. In this context, a critical priority for the new government on Sept. 21 will be to begin working with the industry to partner constructively, delivering on diverse but connected objectives relating to the entire life sciences sector.
Andrew Casey is president
and CEO of BIOTECanada, the
national industry association
companies in Canada.
The Hill Times