When Canada was a world leader in vaccine research and production

Posted on December 3, 2020 in Health History

Source: — Authors:

TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors

As the Trudeau government struggles to figure out how to get a coronavirus vaccine to Canadians, one thing is clear: this task would be a lot easier if the Mulroney government hadn’t privatized Connaught Labs three decades ago.

The sale of the remarkable Connaught Labs to foreign interests made no sense back then, and it makes even less sense today.

Its consequences loom over the country, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledging last week that Canadians won’t get the coronavirus vaccine as soon as citizens in the U.S., Britain, Germany and other countries because we no longer have sufficient domestic vaccine capabilities.

This will be stunning news to anyone familiar with Connaught’s groundbreaking work in developing vaccines and other medical treatments over seven decades before its privatization.

Indeed, it’s ironic — and infuriating — that we find ourselves in a disadvantaged position regarding the coronavirus vaccine since Connaught was a world leader in vaccine development and production.

If Connaught Labs still existed today, its scientists would almost certainly be involved in the quest to come up with a coronavirus vaccine, working collaboratively with other researchers — just as they played a key role in helping U.S. virologist Jonas Salk develop the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

From the early part of the 20th century, Connaught created and produced high-quality medical treatments and vaccines for Canadians, including vaccines for smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough, as Canadian medical historian Christopher Rutty has documented.

Connaught had so distinguished itself as a vaccine producer that when the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s, it turned to Connaught for help, according to Rutty.

In that campaign, Connaught was tasked with improving standards for smallpox vaccine production throughout the Western hemisphere. Connaught scientists travelled to 12 Latin American countries to teach Connaught’s methods.

And, at WHO’s request, Connaught produced a stockpile of 25 million doses of the smallpox vaccine in case of an outbreak in Latin America.

Clearly, Connaught had ample facilities for vaccine production and had been on the cutting edge of vaccine innovation internationally.

The biotech lab was started in 1914 by Toronto doctor John G. FitzGerald who was appalled that large numbers of Canadian children were dying during a diphtheria epidemic because their parents couldn’t afford the only treatment available. FitzGerald experimented and developed an antitoxin that could treat diphtheria, and then, with lab space provided by U of T, went on to develop affordable treatments and vaccines for other deadly diseases.

Connaught Labs always put Canadian needs first. Its main customers were provincial governments, to which it provided its products at cost. Even so, Connaught managed to be financially self-sufficient, earning profits by selling its vaccines in the global market, where it outperformed U.S. and European commercial vaccine producers.

“While other vaccine producers were waning in their export and research and development activities during the early 1970s, Connaught stood out in both areas,” Rutty notes.

But, sadly, Connaught got swept up in the privatization frenzy that gripped Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government in the 1980s as it sought to please the business world by selling off some of Canada’s best publicly owned enterprises.

Today, what remains of Connaught has been absorbed into the vaccine division of foreign-owned pharmaceutical giant Sanofi.

What makes our predicament today particularly galling is that Ottawa invests roughly $1 billion a year to fund medical research by scientists at Canadian universities — without any control over the results, according to Dr. Joel Lexchin, professor emeritus at York University’s School of Health Policy and Management.

The scientists are permitted to take out patents on the products they develop (with our money), and then sell them to pharmaceutical manufacturers, who sell the products to the public — often at great profit.

Even though our public investment paid for the original research, Canadians have no say over the products nor the price at which they are sold to us as consumers. Canada also has no share in the profits.

We’ve ventured a long way, unfortunately, from the days when we had a publicly owned and medically innovative enterprise that dazzled on the world stage and kept Canadians at the front of the line for vaccines.

No longer.

Linda McQuaig is a contributing columnist to the Toronto Star. The research for this column was drawn from her book “The Sport & Prey of Capitalists.”

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