The COVID-19 vaccine delays are a warning on importance of long-term strategy

By Sebastian Leck

Managing Editor

This month, Canadians were surprised to find that we’re lagging far behind other countries in vaccinating our citizens. As of February 19, about 3.5 out of 100 people in Canada had received at least one shot, compared to 17 in the United States and more than 24 in the UK. At 42nd in the world, Canada’s rates are behind much of Western Europe and countries like Chile, Morocco and Slovenia.

The problem isn’t so much an inability to distribute vaccines as it is difficulties with securing supply. Canada once had its own companies that developed and manufactured vaccines, such as Connaught Laboratories in Toronto and BioChem Pharma in St. Foy, Quebec, but both were bought by foreign companies. While there are foreign-owned manufacturers in Canada, much of their supply is tied up with producing existing vaccines.

This lack of capacity is a real obstacle. Federal minister of procurement Anita Anand told a House of Commons committee that leading vaccine manufacturers, including AstraZeneca, turned down offers to produce their vaccines in Canada because capacity was “too limited to justify the investment of capital and expertise to start manufacturing.” Without local manufacturing capacity, Canada instead signed agreements with seven different foreign companies to receive vaccines.

Governments are working quickly to expand manufacturing capacity in Canada, pending the approval of Canadian-made vaccines. This month saw announcements of Next Generation Manufacturing supercluster funding for a new facility in Calgary and a manufacturing facility to produce the Novavax vaccine in Montreal. Yet there is still often an embarrassing lack of coordination and missed opportunities. Research Money reported last week that Providence Therapeutics, a vaccine developer, moved to sign a deal with the Manitoba government after hearing nothing for weeks from the federal government.

Canada has had a National Immunization Strategy in place since the SARS outbreak in 2003, but it  has lacked coordination from Ottawa. There still isn’t a national vaccination registry and the provincial systems vary too much for meaningful comparisons. The approaches of each province to COVID-19 have differed across the board, with centralized responses in BC and the Atlantic provinces and regional disparities in Quebec and Ontario. Moreover, Canada secured a reliable supply of vaccines for an influenza pandemic, but did not plan for a potential coronavirus outbreak.

It was impossible for anyone to foresee the COVID-19 pandemic, but it illustrates the difficulties of responding to crises without the right infrastructure and planning in place. In our latest issue, Research Money covered efforts from researchers to take a long-term approach. A lab at York University is becoming a World Health Organization centre to coordinate the fight against antimicrobial resistance, another potential pandemic, and agricultural researchers warned correspondent Jessica Galang that Canada needed to strategically coordinate funding instead of focusing on short-term, single-crop grants. In late January, we covered the potential impact of Canada’s first national hydrogen strategy, an area that has lacked strategic direction for the past decade.

The COVID-19 crisis revealed the dangers of a Balkanized, short-term approach to scientific research and commercialization. As Canada builds its domestic vaccine production in the next two years, it will be a lesson to keep in mind in other sectors as well.