The landscape of the life sciences sector in Canada has undergone an important transformation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve learned a lot about the interconnectedness of our Canadian health system and the criticality of our shared ability to respond to urgent public health challenges. The Federal government and several Provincial governments have recognized the need to strengthen Canada’s biomanufacturing and life sciences sector, committing to growing a strong and competitive domestic life sciences sector with cutting-edge biomanufacturing capabilities and ensuring preparedness for pandemics or other health emergencies. Today, Canada stands at a crossroads with an opportunity to redefine its role in this vital global sector.
“We can now apply key learnings from our shared pandemic experience and continue to invest in our life sciences sector to help ensure that Canadian patients receive timely and equitable access to life-saving vaccines and medicines in the future.”
Throughout the pandemic, all levels of Canadian governments and healthcare systems worked together with the life sciences sector to facilitate accelerated access to new innovative medicines and vaccines without compromising safety and product quality. This was a remarkable achievement that highlighted Canada’s capacity to realize the health and societal benefits of the country’s vaccination programs and COVID-19 treatments. Working together, we can now apply key learnings from our shared pandemic experience and continue to invest in our life sciences sector to help ensure that Canadian patients receive timely and equitable access to life-saving vaccines and medicines in the future. Investment goes beyond dollars – it includes ambitious policy changes that will help grow the life sciences ecosystem and make Canada a destination for investments.
Where is Canada’s Life Sciences Sector Now?
Canada possesses a strong foundation and history in biomanufacturing and life sciences, illustrated by a growing research and development ecosystem, a pool of talented researchers, and a track record of innovation. Historically, Canadian scientists have played an important role in innovation. Since the pandemic began, Canada has invested significantly in support of a national medical research strategy to fight COVID-19, including vaccine development, the production of treatments, and tracking of the virus.
The pandemic shed light on Canada’s strengths in life sciences but also our vulnerabilities.
Incentivizing Health-Seeking Behaviours
Canada should be rightfully proud of achieving one of the highest vaccination rates against COVID-19 worldwide in the initial stages of vaccination, but there is even more that can be done by public and private sectors to incentivize health-seeking behaviours and mitigate vaccine misinformation. This includes enabling transparent communications about the value of immunization and other protective health measures and treatments by all voices, at all levels. This collaborative effort on health behaviours and tackling misinformation can also help us improve the treatment of other diseases or conditions impacting the health of Canadians.
“Less than one in five new innovative medicines launched globally are available to Canadian patients on public plans. Of the available medicines, Canadian patients are waiting twice as long for access.”
Timely Access to New Medicines
Vaccination is one important way to keep our population healthy. Beyond vaccines, many Canadians rely on novel medical treatments to stay healthy, and being able to access new medicines is critical. The reality is that less than one in five new innovative medicines launched globally are available to Canadian patients on public plans. Of the available medicines, Canadian patients are waiting twice as long for access following Health Canada’s approval compared to patients in most of Canada’s peer countries. Access to health care is a collective responsibility, calling for highly coordinated and collaborative action by public and private stakeholders alike. Canada must be globally competitive, planning for and enabling rapid access to innovations and ensuring appropriate integration within our healthcare systems. The benefits of these advancements can only be realized if they are made accessible when and where they are available.
Leveraging Healthtech and Innovation in the Life Sciences Sector
We also have an incredible opportunity with the introduction of health technology that can change how patient care is delivered. With the rise of artificial intelligence, the increasing development of ground-breaking digital health solutions, and the advancement of more accurate diagnostic testing, Canada must ensure it is keeping pace with the rapid rate of innovation for our collective benefit. To keep pace with such innovations and with other jurisdictions, Health Canada will need to continue to evolve the regulatory framework, guidance, and policies to address innovative advancements and continue to be forward-thinking.
“To keep pace with such innovations and with other jurisdictions, Health Canada will need to continue to evolve the regulatory framework, guidance, and policies.”
COVID-19 clearly highlighted the importance of scientific developments that will help benefit Canadian patients, and the importance of collaborating with academic scientists, patient advocacy groups, governments, other biopharmaceutical companies, and healthcare professionals. Companies in the life sciences sector worked tirelessly and made substantial investments to scale and accelerate our research and discovery efforts. Pro-market and pro-innovation policies are critical to help drive and sustain local investment in a world where jurisdictions can and do compete for capital and talent.
How Canada’s Life Sciences Sector Can Win
Canada already has many key ingredients in place to become a world leader in health research and innovation. We have a diverse population, a strong public health system, and a world-class collection of scientific talent and medical expertise. For Canada to lead in life sciences in the coming years, we must focus on the following three areas of priority:
- Collaboration with industry
- Enabling innovation through a best-in-class regulatory system
- Investing in research and development (R&D) and talent
1. Collaboration in the life sciences sector
Collaboration between industry, academia, and governments results in a stronger research and development ecosystem and facilitates more rapid development of new medical innovations. We can never take this for granted. Leveraging the collective advantage of partnerships across sectors is imperative. Information from government should be shared efficiently with the scientific community so that we are better positioned for any future health emergencies. Governments must prioritize funding towards a pipeline of skilled research and talent to strengthen the life sciences sector and ensure resiliency for years to come. Fostering partnerships leads to medical innovation and in turn, improved global health.
2. Improving the Regulatory System
Health Canada must prioritize the timely and accelerated approval of lifesaving medicines and vaccines to patients while also upholding robust scientific standards. Throughout the pandemic, we saw Canada put in place emergency temporary legislative, regulatory, and policy measures to facilitate clinical trials and ensure product access in a time of crisis. Our regulators engaged with international regulatory partners to ensure alignment and collaborated with companies interested in importing and manufacturing products to support Canada’s response. This response resulted in a more agile regulatory system without compromising safety, efficacy, and quality.
Early and iterative dialogue with companies on requirements and rolling review mechanisms are critical so that pre-clinical and clinical development can be run in parallel, along with the development of manufacturing processes. Regulators should also evolve their reviews to incorporate fit-for-purpose processes, digital tools, and real-world data to encourage rapid authorizations in a framework that allows for efficient updates to address changing disease circumstances as needed. Health Canada is currently undertaking consultations on proposed agile regulations and guidance for licensing drugs and medical devices as part of its modernization agenda. Ensuring the implementation details match the promise and ambition of the policy objectives is key. Health Canada’s Regulatory Innovation Agenda should aim to ensure a regulatory framework that, at a minimum, matches or ideally exceeds those of world-class jurisdictions to ensure the efficient review and authorization of new innovative treatments, vaccines, and devices for the benefit of Canadians.
3. Strenghtening R&D in the Life Sciences Sector
Finally, we need to protect and strengthen medical R&D ecosystems in Canada and around the world. To encourage companies to invest in R&D on pathogens that could trigger the next pandemic or major threat to human health (like anti-microbial resistance or AMR), we must nurture an ecosystem for the long term that values and incentivizes innovation. Intellectual Property rights are a fundamental pillar for driving the R&D that leads to new medicines. Strong and globally competitive IP systems foster an innovative culture, where innovators feel secure to invest risk capital to develop new products and technologies and to collaborate with others, knowing that their inventions and creativity are protected. Governments and the private sector must also prioritize, protect, and sustain funding for basic research. We must work together to identify and implement new types of incentives and new funding sources to maintain R&D and infrastructure, not only for our continuous endeavours to address challenges presented by existing infectious diseases but also for potential risks with emerging pathogens and threats to public health.
“Intellectual Property rights are a fundamental pillar for driving the R&D that leads to new medicines.”
Canada has many reasons to be optimistic. Our competitive position in biomanufacturing and life sciences can continue to improve if we embrace a multifaceted approach grounded in collaboration to foster a top-to-bottom culture and system of medical innovation. The challenges and opportunities that lay ahead will require leadership, patience, and a collective effort involving industry, government, academia, and other stakeholders.
By prioritizing collaboration, innovation, and R&D, Canada can be a leader in ensuring equitable and rapid access to life-saving medicines, not only during the pandemic but for ongoing health needs and any future health emergencies.