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Canada’s mRNA contribution helped Big Pharma, but left out global poor

Canadian taxpayers played a key role in funding the technology that made mRNA vaccines possible. Yet Canadian authorities took no steps to ensure that the resulting vaccines would be made accessible to people who needed them rather than simply becoming enormous profit-generators for Big Pharma.

A vial of a mRNA vaccine.
A vial of a mRNA vaccine. Credit: Spencerbdavis / Wikimiedia Commons Credit: Spencerbdavis / Wikimiedia Commons

Canada played a little-known heroic role in the development of the COVID vaccine, but we failed to use our crucial contribution to insist that the vaccine be available to the world’s people.

Instead, we allowed a key medical technology — developed with millions of dollars in research funds provided by the Canadian government — to be used by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in its COVID vaccine, earning the company more than $60 billion in profits.

Canada didn’t share in any of those profits, nor did we get any say over who would have access to the life-saving vaccine — even though the Canadian technology, known as lipid nanoparticles (LNP), is crucial to the functioning of the vaccine. Without it, Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine simply wouldn’t work.

The LNP technology is also essential to Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, which has also earned billions in profits.

So Canadian taxpayers played a key role in funding the technology that made mRNA vaccines possible. Yet Canadian authorities took no steps to ensure that the resulting vaccines would be made accessible to people who needed them rather than simply becoming enormous profit-generators for Big Pharma.

Today, billions of people around the world, particularly in Africa, remain unvaccinated because pharmaceutical companies resisted international efforts to ensure their COVID vaccines were available to the world’s poor or that local manufacturers could produce their own versions of the vaccines.

This missed opportunity highlights Canada’s deeply-flawed system in which Ottawa channels significant funds to basic medical research — without attaching any strings to ensure equitable access to the resulting products, according to law professor Matthew Herder, director of Dalhousie University’s Health Justice Institute.

Herder argues that research projects receiving government funding should be required to accept such equitable access terms, and that government should counter the focus on protecting intellectual property rights by supporting open science in drug and vaccine development.

Instead, under the current system, Canadian taxpayers spend about $1.25 billion a year funding basic medical research at our universities. When that funding leads to a medical breakthrough, the researchers involved effectively own it. They’re free to patent it and approach commercial enterprises — or create their own enterprises — to bring it to market, explains Dr. Joel Lexchin, a health policy professor at the University of Toronto.

The LNP technology was developed by University of British Columbia biochemist Pieter Cullis with more than $10 million in federal funding. Cullis and colleagues created a biotech company which partnered with Pfizer on the COVID vaccine and became highly profitable.

But Canadian taxpayers are entitled to none of the resulting bonanza even though we funded the basic research, typically the hardest financing to raise.

Today’s system, which prioritizes private profits and intellectual property rights, is in sharp contrast with the system in place for six decades when Canada had publicly-owned Connaught Labs.

Connaught, which was explicitly committed to putting health needs before profit, became one of the world’s leading vaccine producers before it was privatized in the 1980s.

Without drawing on the resources of government or the university, Connaught’s team of scientists carried out basic research, contributing to some of the key medical discoveries of the twentieth century. Connaught also developed and produced a wide range of vaccines and medications, including insulin, making them available globally at affordable prices.

The privatization of Connaught was a terrible mistake, which became particularly clear during the COVID pandemic, when Canada struggled to get access to vaccines (including, ironically, the Pfizer vaccine that our technology enabled).

Had Connaught still been around, it would almost certainly have been among the world’s leading research facilities striving — and likely succeeding — in developing a vaccine.

Sadly, the Trudeau government has shown no interest in re-creating a publicly-owned pharmaceutical enterprise along the lines of Connaught. But is it too much to ask that, when we invest more than a billion dollars a year in medical research, we at least attach a few strings?

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star.

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