Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

 A woman wearing a face mask is seen outside a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, on April 6, 2021. (Photo: Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images)

 A woman wearing a face mask is seen outside a Covid-19 vaccine clinic in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, on April 6, 2021. (Photo: Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images)

Showering Big Pharma With Taxpayer Dollars Won't Solve Vaccine Supply Issues

Privatization has left us scrambling for vaccines in today's pandemic—a dangerous situation that last week drove the desperate Trudeau government to announce a $415 million federal contribution to the expansion of vaccine production capacity at the old Connaught plant, now owned by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur.

Linda McQuaig

 by Toronto Star

Canada’s faltering COVID-19 vaccine rollout is all the more stunning in light of news that little Cuba is on the brink of having its own vaccine—actually one of five COVID vaccines being developed by the tiny nation’s booming biotech industry.

It’s hard to believe it has come to this. Forty years ago, when a biotech industry was just a gleam in Fidel Castro’s eye, Canada had already made it to the top.

"The situation reveals how much Canada is at the mercy of the powerful drug industry now that we no longer have a domestic vaccine capacity that we control."

We already had one of the world’s leading biotech firms—Connaught Labs, a publicly owned enterprise that had developed and produced its own vaccines for seven decades, and whose research scientists were considered among the best in the world.

Cuba, on the other hand, had only a modest lab with six technicians. But Castro had a dream—creating an innovative biotech industry to produce vaccines for Cubans and others in developing countries often ignored by Big Pharma.

Brian Mulroney had a different dream—privatizing Canada’s public enterprises in line with requests from the business community. So, in the 1980s, the Mulroney government sold Connaught Labs, then one of the world’s most innovative vaccine developers.

That privatization has left us scrambling for vaccines in today’s pandemic—a dangerous situation that last week drove the desperate Trudeau government to announce a $415 million federal contribution to the expansion of vaccine production capacity at the old Connaught plant, now owned by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur.

That is not a solution. On the contrary, it’s a reckless use of a lot of public money.

It’s not clear what strings will be attached—if any—to the $415 million from Ottawa, plus $55 million from Ontario, for a total of nearly half a billion dollars of public money.

Ottawa is in ongoing negotiations with Sanofi over a contract aimed at giving Canadians priority access to vaccines produced at the Connaught plant during a future pandemic, federal industry minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said last week.

But surely it would have been better to postpone announcing the $415 million until after Sanofi had agreed to the government’s terms about priority access for Canadians.

Without that nailed down, we can just keep our fingers crossed that Sanofi will come through for us in the future.

The situation reveals how much Canada is at the mercy of the powerful drug industry now that we no longer have a domestic vaccine capacity that we control.

Indeed, Sanofi might use its negotiations with Ottawa to push hard on another issue that’s important to Sanofi and other Big Pharma companies.

In December 2017, Big Pharma was outraged when the Trudeau government announced changes to the Patented Medicines Regulations aimed at reducing patented drug prices by billions of dollars.

Big Pharma has retaliated by not submitting 39 drugs, including treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s, to Health Canada for approval, citing uncertainty over the proposed changes.

With Big Pharma effectively holding a gun to Canada’s head, the Trudeau government has twice postponed implementing the tough new regulations, now delayed until July 1.

The pandemic has only increased the clout of the industry, which largely controls access to COVID vaccines desperately needed by Canadians and others.

"If we really want a biotech company we can rely on and that doesn’t hold a gun to our head, we should spend our money creating an enterprise that we actually own and control—a little secret learned by Cuba."

That increased clout may explain why Justin Trudeau sided with Big Pharma—risking his image as a “progressive”—in opposing a World Trade Organization resolution overriding drug companies’ patent rights so poor countries can access COVID vaccines.

Many commentators argue that we should be more accommodating to Big Pharma, given its life-and-death powers

But, despite providing lengthy patent protection for its drugs, Canada hasn’t gained much in return. Multinational drug companies operate here mostly through branch plants that carry out little research.

Now we’re poised to give Sanofi hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the hope of ensuring a future vaccine supply—perhaps in exchange for cancelling regulations aimed at saving Canadians billions of dollars in drug costs?

If we really want a biotech company we can rely on and that doesn’t hold a gun to our head, we should spend our money creating an enterprise that we actually own and control—a little secret learned by Cuba and, decades earlier, by the brilliant Canadians who created Connaught.


© 2020 TheStar.com
Linda McQuaig

Linda McQuaig

Linda McQuaig is an author, journalist, and former NDP candidate for Toronto Centre in the Canadian federal election. She is also the author of "The Sport and Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada's Public Wealth" (2019), "War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet: It's the Crude, Dude" (2006) and  (with Neil Brooks) of "Billionaires’ Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality" (2012).

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Hold My Pearls': Debbie Dingell Lets Marjorie Taylor Green Have It Over Abortion Rights

The Michigan Democrat engaged in a verbal altercation with the far-right Republican lawmaker from Georgia on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Jon Queally ·


Dems Who Opposed Pentagon Cuts Received Nearly 4x More Donations From Weapons Makers

The latest passage of the NDAA "is particularly strong evidence that Pentagon contractors' interests easily take precedence over national security and the public interest for too many members of Congress," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo