We may be “done with COVID,” but the virus is likely not done with us.
Epidemiologists and public health experts have warned repeatedly over the last two years that unless we come to grips with the huge inequalities in access to vaccines between rich and poor countries, new variants will continue to emerge. If we want to end the pandemic, we must end what many have termed “vaccine apartheid.”
That’s why the Council of Canadians initiated a parliamentary petition last November demanding that the government do more to improve global vaccine equity.
We called on the federal government to stop blocking the manufacturing of generic vaccines in Canada, and to support the temporary suspension of patents on vaccines and other life-saving medicines at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
More than 4,500 supporters and allies joined our call and signed the petition. But the Trudeau government’s official response to that petition, released a few weeks ago, was a shameful non-response.
Signed by the Ministers of Innovation and International Trade, the response celebrates Canada’s pledged vaccine donations. But, importantly, it neglects to mention that the government has delivered only 6 per cent of what it had pledged.
It insists that Canadian trade officials at the WTO are ready to discuss any “IP [intellectual property] challenges” regarding vaccines, should they arise. In fact, Canada’s representatives in Geneva have repeatedly resorted to stall tactics to prevent serious discussion of India and South Africa’s proposal to temporarily lift patents, first made in October 2020 and now supported by over 120 countries.
Most audaciously, the Canadian government tells us that it “supports WTO Members’ right to use provisions in the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to protect public health and promote access to medicines for all.”
But what happens when a country comes knocking on Canada’s door to make use of these provisions? They discover that while they exist on paper, the Trudeau government has made it all but impossible to use them.
Trudeau’s “abhorrent” foot-dragging
A core demand in our petition was for the Canadian government to stop blocking efforts by a Canadian company – Biolyse Pharma – to produce COVID-19 vaccines for export to Bolivia.
Struggling to procure vaccines for its people, the Bolivian government signed a contract with Biolyse Pharma in March 2021 to produce a generic version of the Johnson & Johnson viral vector vaccine. The company has the necessary expertise, and a facility in St. Catharines, Ont., with the capacity to produce up to 20 million doses per year.
Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is patented, but under Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) these patents can be waived “to provide pharmaceutical products to developing nations facing public health crises.” All that’s missing is approval from the federal government.
It would seem like an easy decision to make.
Bolivians, less than half of whom have been fully vaccinated (45.7 per cent as of February 7, according to Our World in Data), would be protected from severe illness and death. Workers in St. Catharines would get jobs producing the vaccines. And the world would move closer to everyone having access to vaccines.
Bolivia’s initiative is a perfect opportunity for Canada to put its money where its mouth is – and take concrete steps to honour its promise to help vaccinate the world.
But the response to our petition from the federal government fully ignores the request to allow Biolyse to produce vaccines under CAMR. Not once does it even mention the words “Bolivia” or “Biolyse Pharma.” It also omits any explicit mention of CAMR.
The obstacles that Biolyse Pharma has encountered in its effort to use existing provisions in Canadian law to produce a generic COVID-19 vaccine reveal just how hollow the government’s rhetoric is.
Nearly a year after Biolyse Pharma first began seeking approval, the company has yet to receive a clear response from the federal government. Biolyse representatives have met with over 30 federal officials in different departments and made numerous attempts to clarify why their request is not moving forward, with no luck so far.
“I find that abhorrent,” Biolyse spokesman John Fulton said at a recent press conference organized by the Council of Canadians and allies. “If we can't use [Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime] for a worldwide pandemic that's killing millions of millions of people, then really what's the use?”
Big Pharma's lobbying counter-offensive
Even as the Trudeau government ignored the intent of our petition, Big Pharma certainly took notice.
Just one day after our petition was tabled in parliament by NDP MP Niki Ashton, Johnson & Johnson lobbyists met with Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne to discuss matters of “health” and “intellectual property,” according to records from the Commissioner of Lobbying.
The meeting with Champagne was no mere coincidence or aberration. Big Pharma has been waging a counter-offensive against any effort to make them share their (publicly-funded) vaccine technology. Lobbying of the federal government by Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and other vaccine makers has gone up by 80 per cent since October 2020, as research conducted by the Council of Canadians has shown.
Johnson & Johnson lobbyists have been some of the busiest of Big Pharma’s representatives on Parliament Hill. Among the subjects broached by the company, as well as other Big Pharma lobbyists, has been Canada's Access to Medicines Regime – namely, ensuring that the program supports “a business climate in Canada that continues to encourage research into further treatment and prevention of disease.”
In response to Biolyse Pharma’s initial effort to get authorization under CAMR, Johnson & Johnson immediately mobilized lobbyists to shut the effort down. Members of the company’s 17-person lobbying team in Ottawa met with Minister Champagne on the very same day that Biolyse filed papers to produce a generic COVID-19 vaccine in March 2021.
The lobbyists followed up with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland two days later. And, over the following several weeks, representatives of the U.S.-based pharmaceutical giant met with 10 different politicians, advisors, and high-level bureaucrats. Several were officials from Health and Innovation, the Ministries responsible for responding to Biolyse’s request.
“Let’s be honest”: Big Pharma versus public health
The giant pharmaceutical companies have long regarded programs like Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime as unacceptable infringements on their intellectual property rights.
At a 2014 industry conference, Bayer Chief Executive Officer Marijn Dekkers summed up Big Pharma’s callous attitude, denouncing the Indian government’s attempt to issue a compulsory license for a costly cancer treatment drug produced by Bayer as "essentially theft."
"We did not develop this product for the Indian market, let’s be honest,” he said. “We developed this product for Western patients who can afford this product, quite honestly."
As Johnson & Johnson’s lobbying shows, this attitude has not changed one iota since the start of the pandemic, despite the development of J&J’s vaccine benefiting from over $1 billion in U.S. government subsidies.
The "public-private partnership" model applied to COVID-19 vaccine development and production has been an unmitigated disaster for global public health. Despite receiving billions in subsidies, Big Pharma has engaged in outrageous profiteering during the pandemic while largely shutting out lower-income countries from vaccine access.
The outsized role of Big Pharma has also sowed public distrust in how governments and public health authorities have handled the pandemic response. Sometimes, that distrust has translated into opposition to vaccination campaigns and the use of vaccine passports, as we’ve seen within some of the supporters of the “Freedom Convoy” that took over the streets of Ottawa over the last several weeks.
There are good reasons to be wary of the corrupting influence of Big Pharma’s profiteering. But healthy skepticism of their motives doesn’t justify the conclusion that all their products are a scam. In the case of the vaccines, numerous studies have shown they are highly effective against severe illness and hospitalization. The greatest threat to our health comes from our governments’ willingness to put these corporations’ profits ahead of saving lives and ending the pandemic.
A People’s Vaccine now!
We need a vigorous “People’s Lobby” for vaccine justice. Now that Parliament is back in session, the Council of Canadians and its allies are calling on supporters to contact their MPs to urge them to speak out against the Trudeau government’s Big Pharma-backed obstructionism.
More than 70 MPs spoke up in May 2021 about the urgency of vaccine justice and lifting patents to end the pandemic. Now we need the rest of our elected representatives to join them too.
There is broad support for such a position. Seven in ten Canadians support lifting patents to allow companies like Biolyse to make these life-saving medical products more affordable and accessible.
Several Council chapters and allies (including the Trade Justice Network, ONE Campaign, UNIFOR, and the United Church of Canada) have already started efforts to press federal MPs on this issue.
We have to make our voices heard in Ottawa, above the din of honking horns and the whispers of Big Pharma lobbyists.