Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a core strength of the biotechnology sector was the solutions the sector brings to the challenge of a global population moving quickly to nine or 10 billion people and the imperative of finding ways to fundamentally alter how we grow, manufacture, cure and fuel our economies and societies. While policymakers generally understood the sector’s overall strategic value, there was no real urgency to establish the right public policy conditions to support the sector’s growth and competitiveness. Not surprisingly, the pandemic’s economic, social and health impacts have effectively focused the attention of policymakers and the public on the strategic importance of building a competitive domestic life sciences industry and biomanufacturing capacity. It is clear that the Canadian biotech sector is having a generational moment that we should capitalize on.
“Long before its arrival, experts had for years alerted governments regarding the real possibility of a pandemic and the need to invest in growing vaccine manufacturing capacity.”
The pandemic should not have been the surprise it was. Long before its arrival, experts had for years alerted governments regarding the real possibility of a pandemic and the need to invest in growing vaccine manufacturing capacity. Most warnings went unheeded or were met with a minimal response. Accordingly, when it hit, governments everywhere found themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to build the plane while in flight. Two years on and it is clear the Canadian government has no interest in reliving the experience and has been taking significant steps to prepare for future pandemics. The 2021 Federal Budget dedicated over $2 billion and launched a Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy to grow the life sciences sector in Canada and develop domestic biomanufacturing capacity. Combined with other investments in the space, the federal government has committed some $4 billion to the life sciences sector. This makes good public policy sense and presents an important and timely opportunity to accelerate the growth of Canada’s biotech sector beyond just a biomanufacturing response in a crisis.
Importantly, Canada Is building its capacity from a position of strength. Indeed, Canada is well-positioned with two large-scale, established commercial facilities in Sanofi (Toronto) and GSK (Quebec City). In addition, Moderna has announced it will establish an mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility in Quebec by the end of 2024. Established Canadian biotechs including Resilience (Toronto), the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (Saskatoon), Medicago (Quebec City) and Biovectra (PEI and Nova Scotia) also represent significant biomanufacturing assets. There is in place a solid and valuable biomanufacturing foundation in Canada which should be recognized and built upon going forward. Investing more in enhancing this foundation will not only help address the preparedness objective, but if done strategically and for the long-term, it will generate and support the creation and scaling-up of companies in Canada. In addition to existing biomanufacturing and vaccine development capacity, Canada has many strategic core competencies including regenerative medicine, artificial intelligence in the field of drug discovery and development, vaccines, clinical trial expertise and genomics.
“Canada needs to be more competitive with respect to attracting and rewarding investment capital for the biotech sector.”
While Canada is fortunate to have a strong biotech foundation, there remain some headwinds to be addressed, namely:
- Investment: Canada needs to be more competitive with respect to attracting and rewarding investment capital for the biotech sector. Other countries are being very aggressive in developing tax measures to attract investment and support their growth. Research and development tax credits and patent boxes are increasingly important measures in other jurisdictions. Canada needs to keep pace with these if it hopes to continue being a competitive jurisdiction.
- Talent: The attraction and retention of top-tier talent are essential to the growth and competitiveness of the sector. Talent is inherently mobile. Accordingly, Canada must take urgent steps to retain the talent we have while attracting new talent for the biotech sector.
- Regulatory efficiency: With new, game-changing and life-saving technologies on the horizon (with some, such as mRNA vaccines and gene therapies, here now), Canada needs to ensure its regulatory oversight for biotech innovations is modern, agile and effective.
There remains significant work ahead to address these challenges and strategically deploy the announced investments as well as deliver the Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy. There is always the risk of new priorities and challenges emerging which can distract governments from finishing the work they began. This risk increases with the obvious onset of COVID-19 fatigue. Accordingly, the government must create a senior-level official position that has a specific responsibility to carry through with the investments and policies set forth in the Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy. In addition to quarterbacking the existing investments and strategy, this will also be instrumental in ensuring Canada is prepared for the next pandemic-like challenge.
“This is a critical time for industry and government to partner constructively to deliver on diverse but connected objectives relating to the entire life sciences sector.”
Addressing these challenges does not all fall solely on the shoulders of the government. This is a critical time for industry and government to partner constructively to deliver on diverse but connected objectives relating to the entire life sciences sector. With more than 240 members representing the full biotechnology ecosystem and all life sciences sectors including healthcare, agriculture, biomanufacturing and investment, BIOTECanada will continue to support all undertakings designed to develop a cohesive national strategy to augment the vast potential of the entire biotechnology sector in Canada. Accordingly, this is a critical time for industry and government to partner constructively to deliver on diverse but connected objectives relating to the entire life sciences sector. Our existing capacity coupled with significant investments in growing domestic biomanufacturing and strategic partnerships certainly establish a foundation for ensuring Canada is prepared to address a future pandemic-like health challenge.
On September 29, BIOTECanada held the BIONATION policy summit in Ottawa. The objective of the summit and its corresponding policy paper was to establish increased recognition amongst policymakers and Parliamentarians regarding the generational moment the Canadian biotech sector is experiencing and the economic value a vibrant biotech ecosystem provides Canada. With policy sessions focused on biomanufacturing, investment and next-generation technologies, the BIONATION summit began the industry-government partnership necessary for the attraction of investment and talent. This will improve our ability to build on existing strengths and create new companies, and ultimately scale up those companies to become anchor companies.