'We took our eye off the ball': How Canada lost its vaccine production capacity

In the race to develop and produce a COVID-19 vaccine, Canada is on the sidelines despite its once notable status as a global source for life-saving injections.

Canada lost that standing long ago, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained this week, which means even if the country had developed its own novel coronavirus vaccine, there would be no means to produce it on the scale required.

“We used to have [production capacity] decades ago but we no longer have it,” Trudeau said Tuesday in Ottawa.

How did it get to this point? Canadian administrations simply took their “eye off the ball,” said Earl Brown, an infectious disease expert and a former member of the H1N1 vaccine task group in Canada. After that pandemic, a review found that vaccine production capacity was “right at the top” of the list of problems, he said. It wasn’t always that way.

“We had great vaccine producers in Canada -- world leaders essentially -- 50 years ago,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. There was Connaught Laboratories in Toronto, which was known for producing insulin to treat diabetes and inoculants for diphtheria and polio, and Institut Armand Frappier in Montreal that produced vaccines, including one for tuberculosis, he noted.

“The problem was they had a poor business model,” said Brown. “These were vaccine companies spun off from universities, so there was indirect funding and they had a model of not making so much profit.”

So they were eventually sold, Montreal's Frappier lab to British multinational GlaxoSmithKline and Connaught, through a series of mergers, to French multinational Sanofi Pasteur after Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government's program of privatization . The labs now have a “tighter production line and not so much capacity,” said Brown.

The inability to mount a domestic production campaign means that the Canadian government must rely on purchase agreements with top U.S. and European pharmaceutical brands, including Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, to produce and provide the shots to Canadians once the vaccines are approved by Health Canada. In the absence of a domestic candidate, Ottawa has ordered as many as 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates from seven different companies.

'A MAJOR GLITCH'

There are some promising vaccine candidates in development across Canada, including Quebec’s Medicago and Saskatchewan’s VIDO-InterVac, but the companies lack the means to produce them here. What would that mean for rollout should those candidates be successful? 

“That’s a major glitch,” said Brown. “You’re going to have to get a partner, somebody who’s got the ability to do that and then you have to get them onside, tuned up, send them your vaccine, get it produced and bottled. Not the best way to do it.”

For those Canadian companies to mount production campaigns on their own will take time -- and a lot of it, they have said. VIDO-InterVac said it has plans to build a facility in one year, but that it would take another still to get it in operating shape. “That’s not the time frame you like,” said Brown.

In the meantime, Canadians will have to rely on speedier countries with approved COVID-19 vaccines to provide doses, but Canadians won't be prioritized ahead of their own people. “Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities, which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first,” Trudeau said on Tuesday in Ottawa.

To help Canadians first, the federal government should set up a Crown corporation to produce vaccines, suggests Joel Lexchin, a professor emeritus with York University’s School of Health Policy and Management. 

“It’s one thing if we give up the ability to domestically make something like laundry detergent. We can all live without laundry detergent. But when it comes to medications and vaccines, those are critical for the health of Canadians and we should be able to make them ourselves,” he told CTV National News. “Not only will the ability to domestically produce them ensure that Canadians get the care that they need, but we can also fulfill our human rights obligations by exporting them at low cost to low- and middle-income countries.”

'GROSS INCOMPETENCE'

The reliance on other countries and private companies is upsetting critics of Trudeau, who said Tuesday that his administration has begun funding domestic vaccine production capacity because “we never want to be caught short again.” 

“This is gross incompetence that’s going to cost Canadians their lives and their jobs,” said Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner on Tuesday from Parliament Hill.

But criticism toward one government’s inaction may often easily be directed at another with hindsight, countered Brown on Your Morning.

“When you have the problem, you look back and say ‘We should have done something, shouldn’t we?’” he said.

With files from CTV News' Rachel Aiello and CTV National News correspondents Glen McGregor and Avis Favaro 

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