'We can't be choosers': Why Canada 'made its bed' and could never be first in line for a COVID-19 vaccine

Ahmar Khan
·5-min read

Canada wasn’t at the front of line for a coronavirus vaccine, but Canadians didn’t have to wait too long before they finally gained access, despite not having any manufacturing capabilities.

"Canada is not at the back of the line," said Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna on Rosemary Barton Live on CBC a few weeks ago.

The Canadian government made procurement deals in August, when the vaccine's viability was relatively unknown, seems to be a risk that seems to now be paying off according to Moderna’s chairman.

"The people who were willing to move early on with even less proof of the efficacy have assured the amount of supply they were willing to sign up for," Afeyan said.

Why couldn’t Canada be first?

Now that some vaccine doses have arrived, the conversation has partly shifted from arrival time to Canada’s limited production capacity when it comes to making vaccines. It started with the privatization efforts led by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who’s government sold Connaught Labs in 1986.

“Thirty years ago, we were pretty good, Connaught Labs was our biggest producer - we were world class,” said Dr. Earl Brown, a virology and microbiology expert at the University of Ottawa.

The sale of Connaught Labs and the failure to course correct with emergence of SARS-CoV, H1N1 or HIV has loomed over Canada for decades and is now displayed during the pandemic. As a result, the Trudeau government has to rely on purchasing vaccines from seven different countries, and has secured 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

“None of the vaccines proposed are ones we can make in Canada in quantity, because we just don't have any production facilities really anywhere in Canada,” said Brown.

The National Research Council is set to be retrofitted to be able to produce smaller doses of the coronavirus vaccine, which it would need approval for, but construction has been delayed by months. Much of technology in Canada is not set for synthetic vaccines according to Brown, so any new developments will need to be ready to work on, if they invest in vaccine production.

“We gotta have a vaccine platform. We have to build something on the ground, but we have to be careful. We don't fight today's war with yesterday's weapons,” he said.

In April 2010, the Conservative Party of Canada decided to cancel the production of an $88-million dollar HIV vaccine pilot production facility. Winnipeg International Centre for Infectious Diseases had been named as the successful bid the year prior, but before shovels could get in the ground, the project was dead and gone.

At the time, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) officials cited a lack of scientific, technical and sustainability criteria outlined in the request for proposals by all bidders, and felt it had found capacity to produce the vaccine elsewhere.

“You make your bed, you live in it, you sleep in it and in Canada, there's no vaccine companies. So that's the way it is,” said Brown.

Complacency rules the day

It wasn’t just in 2010 that Canada made the wrong decision when it came to vaccine production, but the decades prior, Brown points to a lack of funding for research within the field. He noted that there was an air of complacency around emerging viruses, and nobody expected we’d be living in a pandemic of this scale.

“I think we felt very complacent about infectious disease. We think if a problem comes up we can solve it, but problems don’t tell you how fast or how big they’re going to be,” he said.

But, that attitude seems to be changing, and Brown thinks it needs to be, especially as infectious disease specialists predict more viral outbreaks to occur in the upcoming years.

“We're going to be living in the age of emerging diseases a bit more here and we gotta be ready to fight that,” he said.

While there is finger pointing from Conservatives and Liberals alike about why Canada wasn’t first in the pecking order when it comes to a vaccine, Brown is quick to remind them that being amongst the first group is a big win.

“We want to be able to get the vaccine to Canadian in a timely manner. Whether we're 1st, 2nd or 10th, we're fairly close. We can't be choosers,” said Brown.

Frankly speaking, some of the attitudes about Canada deserving and wanting to be first have shocked Brown, who points to Canada’s desire to balance the budget while sacrificing investment in public health, microbiology research and production facilities.

“We did the expedient thing, which saved nickels and dimes in the past, but now we’ve got a pandemic. Don't demand other people fix our problems, be a little bit more stoic about it and maybe be a little bit more humble,” said Brown.

What can Canada do to improve in another health crisis?

While the Canadian government has made promises to up its investments in public health, Brown admits he’d like to see the same be done for medical health research and production facilities. He said that solely putting all the funding into public health won’t solve problems, and Canada has great scientists and now is the time to incentivize them to stay home.

“We've got great science in this country. We've got people who know what to do, we know how to enable them, now we have to organize them,” said Brown.

While it’s been a long time since Canada made grand-scale investments, Brown thinks it’s clear as day that the Trudeau government should invest in vaccine production facilities.

“It's clear as day that Canada needs to invest in vaccine production similar to how they should be investing in public health. I think we should have the capability for vaccine production, We should have the infrastructure to make vaccines at the drop of a hat,” said Brown.