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Preparing our medical system for the next pandemic

Preparing our medical system for the next pandemic

The pandemic has underlined the fundamental importance of our life sciences sector and the need to be agile in developing new medicines, vaccines, and treatments.

By: Lesia Babiak and Gordon McCauley

This article originally appeared in The Hill Times.

Yes, Canada performed well throughout the pandemic, but at what cost?

With the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the world, Canada has become a model for its handling of the pandemic. With stringent public health measures and strong solidarity throughout the lockdowns and vaccination campaign, Canada performed better, in terms of health outcomes, than many similar countries, including the United States, United Kingtom, and France.

Canadians should be proud of these achievements. However, we should not forget the extraordinary costs of the past two-and-a-half years.

The pandemic caused one the most severe disruptions ever to the Canadian economy. In April 2020, as lockdowns and social distancing requirements forced businesses to close their doors, unemployment shot up to 14.7 per cent and business revenues plummeted. Canada’s GDP growth rate dipped below zero for the first time since 2009. While the government’s fiscally liberal response saved Canada from a recession, the debts we accumulated will take years to pay down. Now is the time to shift our focus to our economic recovery as well as increasing the resilience and preparedness of our medical system.

Soon after the outbreak of the pandemic, the inadequacy of our health-care system became apparent. Our hospitals reached breaking point despite having COVID-19 hospitalization rates four to five times lower than other countries like the United States and United Kingdom. We’re still seeing echoes of that fragility today.

The pandemic also highlighted the fragility of our supply chains when faced with an urgent crisis. When the first COVID-19 vaccines were approved, other countries were able to produce them domestically by retooling existing vaccine manufacturing facilities. Given our limited vaccine manufacturing infrastructure, we did not have that option. Canada now has the most vaccinated population in the world, although we were one of the last major markets to begin delivering shots, costing us additional lives and prolonging the strain on our medical system.

The pandemic has underlined the fundamental importance of our life sciences sector and the need to be agile in developing new medicines, vaccines, and treatments. In the immediate term, we must continue shoring up domestic manufacturing capacity and supply for medically necessary drugs and devices. This focus is a key aspect of recent life science strategies released by the federal government and many provinces in recent months. This work is welcome and consistent with the advice of many external experts both prior to and during the pandemic.

The last few years have illustrated the steep price of complacency. We can’t stop now. There is also a need for a broader, more co-ordinated public policy approach to the life sciences sector, informed by leadership in the sector itself and rooted in the fundamental needs of Canadians.

A best-in-class strategy for Canada includes investing to secure the needed talent and skills, continuing to improve regulatory agility, offering favourable tax treatment and other incentives for drug and medical technology manufacturers to invest and innovate in Canada, supporting commercialization of Canadian innovations, and better integrating Canadian companies into global supply chains. Governments must follow through on existing commitments in their recently released strategies and introduce governance structures that ensure targets are met.

The pandemic has focused our attention on the importance of emergency preparedness and public health. We must use this opportunity to address the gaps in our medical systems that were exposed during the pandemic. In addition to making Canadians safer, our investment decisions can foster a world-class biomanufacturing, biotechnology, and medical technology ecosystem, driving our pandemic recovery and economic growth.

Many peer countries are making progress on their own life sciences strategies. In a competitive world, Canadians expect continued focus on the sector even as the pandemic comes to an end. We can and must do much more to make Canada more resilient with a vibrant life sciences sector, or risk being left behind in an increasingly global supply chain.

Keep calm. Carry on. But let’s ensure Canada does what’s necessary to be ready for the next time.

Gordon McCauley is president and CEO of adMare BioInnovations and Lesia Babiak is head of government affairs and policy at Johnson & Johnson Canada. Together they co-chair the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Lifesciences Strategy Council.

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