We need a made-in-Canada pandemic strategy, stat!

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Putting Canadian jobs first would also ensure that when it comes to vaccines, we are not at the back of the line.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 30, 2020.

Now that several vaccines are on the horizon, there is hope in sight for an end to this global pandemic.

But Canadians are now learning that we might have to wait longer than other countries to be vaccinated since there is no domestic manufacturer.

The government was quick off the mark to sign agreements securing multiple potential vaccines as soon as international universities and companies began researching vaccines. Canada has already stockpiled enough syringes to vaccinate every single citizen.

But the material used to go into the syringe is not so easy to obtain.

Without a made-in-Canada vaccine, we are being forced to line up behind other countries that understandably want to protect their own citizens first.

Outgoing president Donald Trump launched Operation Warp Speed with the intention of securing enough vaccines as quickly as possible, strictly for American citizens.

Early on in the pandemic, he made it very clear that any personal protective equipment manufactured in the United States would be staying there. At one point, he even made it illegal to export 3M protective masks to Canada, even though Canadian pulp was imported to form the basis of the masks he was refusing to share.

In the end, the Canadian government partnered to open a 3M factory in Canada, the only way to guarantee security of supply of the medical-grade masks.

So why hasn’t the government done the same thing for vaccines?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the country does not have the capacity to produce vaccines. Its strategy, instead, was to sign as many vaccine deals as possible so that Canada would be in a position to secure vaccines from multiple sources.

That strategy does not explain why the government did not secure domestic licensing agreements during the advance purchase negotiations.

Many other countries have those licensing agreements and are already beginning production in anticipation of an approval by the American Food and Drug Administration or the European certifying authority. Unlike many countries, Canada does not accept health certifications from other jurisdictions, and carries out its own analysis.

That gives most of us a sense of security that we are not simply mimicking approvals from elsewhere.

But to those familiar with the system, Health Canada approval delays are actually restricting the development of a robust domestic pharmaceutical industry.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently working to assist a number of Canadian companies selling PPE and/or developing tests to help in the global pandemic fight.

One such company in the Toronto area, BTNX, has been making Health Canada-approved test kits for drug testing, strep throat testing, pregnancy and others for more than 20 years.

In the early stages of the COVID outbreak, it started working on the development rapid antigen and antibody tests.

The tests were approved in Europe last spring, and are currently sold in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain. Brazil, Peru, and with a partner in the United States.

But its test kits in Canada are still awaiting approval. Not only can the test kits not be sold in our country, according to Health Canada regulations, kits cannot even be exported for sale in countries that have already approved it.

So, the Canadian company, located in the riding of the minister for small business, was forced to set up its COVID manufacturing facility in the United Kingdom. That country has already approached the company, offering financial assistance to move the balance of its operations there.

But even though its test was included in the Regeneron drug protocol given to Trump, it is still awaiting Canadian approval.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government last week announced the purchase of 20 million similar test kits from a foreign competitor, despite the fact that the Canadian test kit was better ranked by the World Health Organization.

Purchase orders from major Canadian airlines remain unfilled while those airlines secure test kits from foreign companies.

Another Canadian company, again with deep roots in the testing area, has developed a saliva test that it expects to be approved in Europe and the United States in January. When asked about expected Health Canada approval dates, the company sarcastically suggested it might come in 2031.

But if the vaccine delay shows us anything, our country must have a made-in-Canada pandemic strategy.

A good start would involve prioritizing domestic pharmaceutical companies in testing and purchase of COVID-fighting tools.

Putting Canadian jobs first would also ensure that when it comes to vaccines, we are not at the back of the line.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.