THE HILL TIMES: New life sciences campaign aims to break down silos between innovation, economic development and health policies

by | Apr 27, 2021 | News

The Hill Times: April 12, 2021

New life sciences campaign aims to break down silos between innovation, economic development and health policies

By: Tessie Sanci 

A new public-facing campaign launched on April 12 is asking federal politicians to work on a national life sciences strategy that allows for a more cohesive approach to health, innovation and economic policies

The campaign is led by Life Sciences Ontario (LSO), whose members include various pharmaceutical companies, consulting firms and research universities. It begins with an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) published in the print editions of newspapers that include The Hill Times, The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir, and online in daily national and political newspapers including the National Post and La Presse. The letter tells Trudeau that a life sciences strategy requires “more collaboration” between the sector, health researchers, the patient community and governments, and “less uncertain and complex regulations that are blocking our ability to move at the speed of science.”

There are 19 signatories to the letter, representing the life sciences, health research, and business communities. (A full list is available at the end of the article.)

After working for at least five years to encourage the Ontario government to develop a life sciences strategy, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting problems with vaccine supply provided an opportunity to elevate the conversation to the federal level, according to Jason Field, president and CEO at LSO.

“What we’re trying to say here is that we need … an all-government approach, where we talk about other mechanisms of investment. That includes health regulation, procurement regulation and how we commercialize our innovation out of our research communities and partnerships,” Field said in a phone interview with Hill Times Research on April 12. “We’ve got to take a more holistic comprehensive view from soup to nuts with this sector.”

The “biggest breakthrough” from this campaign would be if it encouraged governments in Canada to work outside of their siloed departments, said Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, in a phone interview with Hill Times Research on April 12. The chamber is a signatory to the open letter.

“When you talk to people in economic development, whether at the provincial level or the federal level, they get the potential of high-value jobs and return on investment of the medical sciences,” he said. “Then you go over to the ministries of health in respective federal or provincial [governments], and then it’s an adversarial relationship that is … all about how do we drive the cost down to the lowest possible.”

Champagne takes ministerial lead on biomanufacturing 

The federal Liberals have been open about their desire to improve domestic biomanufacturing capacity in light of the logistical challenges that have impacted Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Although there are Canadian companies working on a pharmaceutical response to the pandemic, the federal government has had to rely on foreign manufacturers in order to get large numbers of vaccines into the country quickly.

Trudeau has tasked François-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice—Champlain, Que.) with the job of enhancing Canada’s life sciences industry in his new role as innovation minister. One of the first major steps was a public consultation on how to improve biomanufacturing capacity that ended on March 12.

Another more recent initiative was substantial federal funding to the tune of $415 million to help Sanofi Pasteur Limited build a new end-to-end vaccine manufacturing facility on Sanofi’s existing site in Toronto. The Ontario government is contributing $55 million, and Sanofi will invest more than $455 million.

An experienced minister who is on his fourth portfolio since first being elected in 2015, Champagne seems enthusiastic about his new role and has publicly commented on phone and text conversations he’s having with the CEOs of pharma companies. During a March 25 event organized by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce (which is also a participant in LSO’s life sciences campaign), Champagne told chamber president Perrin Beatty that he is open to discussing executives’ policy concerns, but he’s appealing to these executives to help him begin to build a life sciences ecosystem.

Field has been involved in larger group discussions with Champagne, and has observed the minister’s enthusiasm first-hand, he said, but there’s only so much Champagne can do on his own.

“I think the challenge that we face is that there’s still these silos that are happening between innovation, economic and health policies. While the minister may be very engaged and very enthusiastic, I think there are limits within his mandate that he’s been given. For example, I think that’s why we saw a huge investment in Sanofi because that was part of the tools he has in his toolbox,” Field said.

Possible policy avenues for a life sciences strategy include incentivizing private investment in the sector through tax policy, leveraging pension fund investments, and finding ways to improve efficiency in regulatory processes, according to Field.

COVID-19 saw Health Canada disrupt its traditional regulatory processes in order to provide access to vaccines and therapeutics more quickly. For example, vaccine candidates are being submitted for department approval using a rolling submission process, allowing the regulator to begin to review the candidate’s early data while the manufacturer continues to collect more advanced data. The traditional process would have required manufacturers to complete all steps within a clinical trial process before submitting their product for review.

Jobs, revenue and “cheap insurance”

Rossi is calling on governments to move away from looking at life sciences as a cost and instead look to it as a generator of revenue and jobs. A 2019 Deloitte report commissioned by LSO found that Ontario’s life sciences sector generated an estimated $56.8 billion in revenue in 2016, and an estimated 91,000 jobs in 2017. The sector also produces wages that are 24 per cent higher than the provincial average, the report states.

He also called a more positive relationship between governments and the sector “cheap insurance.”

“Clearly, the countries in the world that developed relationships and not transactions have done better in the [COVID-19 vaccine] rollout,” he said, pointing to the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel as examples of countries who are ahead in their rollout and also have a domestic pharmaceutical presence.

But drug costs have been a significant focus, especially for the current Liberal government. Since first coming into power under Trudeau’s leadership in 2015, the government has focused on bringing down drug costs through a national pharmacare program and changing how drug prices are regulated by the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB).

Like many pharmaceutical companies and organizations representing those companies, LSO has come out against the PMPRB rule changes that are scheduled to be in effect this July. However, Field said this particular campaign is “not a thinly veiled message around PMPRB.”

“I want to be very clear that this [public letter] is not a letter about PMPRB,” he said. “PMPRB is a symptom of what I would call a bigger problem. And that bigger problem is this lack of alignment across innovation, economic and health policy. That’s the underlying challenge that we want to tackle.”

In addition to getting the attention of the prime minister, Fields is hoping to attract other voices that want to be a part of this initiative, saying he’d like to see this become a “little bit of a movement to encourage the federal government to really come to the table with us.”

Rossi’s perspective is that the pandemic has shown that there are different ways of looking at cost, saying that Canada’s lagging vaccine rollout has produced unprecedented levels of costs to the country.

“What that [lag] is costing in terms of lives and livelihoods, in terms of government expenditure, it makes the debates over the drug costs seem like penny-ante. We’re talking about the largest deficits and debts created in our history – bigger than the Second World War,” he said.

Canada’s deficit was pegged at $381.6 billion when the federal Liberals’ economic statement was unveiled last September, which does not account for any spending that has occurred in the last six months. An updated accounting is expected in the 2021 budget, which will be published on April 19.

Signatories to the life sciences campaign:

  • BioAlberta
  • BioNB
  • BioNova
  • BioQuébec
  • Bioscience Association Manitoba
  • Canadian Chamber of Commerce
  • Canadian Health Research Forum
  • Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal
  • Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec
  • Innovative Medicines Canada
  • LifeSciences BC
  • Life Sciences Ontario
  • Medtech Canada
  • Mississauga Board of Trade
  • Montréal InVivo
  • Ontario Chamber of Commerce
  • Prince Edward Island BioAlliance
  • Québec International
  • Canadian Forum for Rare Disease Innovators (RAREi)