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How Canada became a vaccine villain

Originally published in The Breach, December 2, 2021.

Until recently, nobody could accuse Justin Trudeau of being Big Pharma’s BFF. 

In fact, the pharmaceutical industry used to have an adversarial relationship with the Liberals, thanks to Trudeau’s suggestion that domestic drug prices might be too high and should therefore be regulated. The mood between government and industry was seen as “hostile” by the media; pharma lobbyists publicly complained that Liberal ministers’ engagement with them had been “cursory.”

The pandemic changed everything.

Relations between Big Pharma and the Trudeau government have warmed considerably over the past year, an analysis of lobbying records by The Breach shows, with lobbying meetings jumping by 80 percent. One casualty of this budding friendship has been Trudeau’s universal pharmacare agenda, which the Liberals appear to have abandoned. 

But Big Pharma’s sway over policy reaches far beyond domestic matters. Trudeau’s political capitulation extends all the way to Geneva, where Canada’s trade representatives at the World Trade Organization (WTO) have for over a year blocked progress on a proposal to temporarily lift patents on vaccines and other essential medicines. Contracts the Liberal government has signed with companies even initially banned Canada from donating surplus doses to lower-income countries.

The pandemic has produced an unprecedented windfall for Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, the major vaccine producers who possess a product everyone needs and, with few exceptions, only they can produce. Pfizer and Moderna in particular have posted astronomical profits and minted several new billionaires among their executives and shareholders. With the partial exception of AstraZeneca, they have shunned multilateral channels established to ensure a fair global distribution of vaccines and concentrated instead on inking secretive, bilateral deals. Countries willing to pay top dollar go to the front of the line, leaving the rest of the world waiting for handouts. 

The result of this laissez-faire approach has been distribution so lopsided that the head of the World Health Organization has denounced it as “vaccine apartheid.” Lower-income countries remain stuck at square one, waiting for vaccine donations that never arrive. (Canada is a particularly poor performer in this regard, having delivered only 8 per cent of the 200 million doses it pledged to give.) 

The People’s Vaccine Alliance reports that 73 per cent of all vaccine doses have gone to just ten countries, while less than six per cent of Africans have been vaccinated. Vaccine inequity is so extreme that the number of booster shots administered by wealthy countries surpasses six-fold the number of total doses given in low-income countries. COVAX, the institution that was to ensure equitable access to vaccine doses for poorer countries, has been an utter failure

“This is a moral indictment of the state of our world,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a speech in September. “It is an obscenity. We passed the science test. But we are getting an F in Ethics.”

As Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant of concern, wreaks its havoc, it has brought the dramatic global inequity in access to vaccines and the power held by a handful of pharmaceutical corporations back into focus. 

The immediate signs on Canada’s part are not good. The federal government has banned flights from southern Africa, but not from Europe, where some countries have more cases of Omicron than those on the banned list. And despite growing momentum for countries to lift vaccine patents at the WTO, Trudeau’s government appears to still be unmoved.

A path to global vaccine equity

Sensing early on that the Global South would be locked out, India and South Africa approached the WTO in October 2020 with a proposal to facilitate cheaper, generic production of vaccines, therapeutics and other medical products needed to fight COVID-19. 

Their proposal: by suspending the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on these urgently needed items, other pharmaceutical companies could increase the supply of vaccines and bring down the prices. Over 120 countries have rallied behind the “TRIPS waiver” proposal. But not Canada. 

And yet, in the first months of the pandemic, Canada’s stance on vaccine equity was supposedly crystal clear. The quest for a vaccine, if successful, would produce “a unique global public good of the 21st century,” Trudeau declared in May 2020, in a statement co-signed with European leaders. “Together with our partners, we commit to making it available, accessible and affordable to all.”

Two months later, Trudeau reiterated this stance in a Washington Post op-ed signed by eight other world leaders. “We cannot allow access to vaccines to increase inequalities within or between countries—whether low-, middle- or high-income…While global cooperation in terms of resources, expertise and experiences is paramount for developing a vaccine, manufacturing and distributing it while leaving no one behind will truly put global cooperation to the test.” 

But in response to the call for a TRIPS waiver, Big Pharma’s leading vaccine producers spearheaded a continent-spanning political counter-offensive in the form of lobbying and public relations. Despite receiving billions of dollars in public money at the development stage, in the form of subsidies and advance purchase agreements from the US and EU, Big Pharma regarded the vaccines as their exclusive “intellectual property,” and they intended to keep it that way.

Here in Canada, the local representatives of Big Pharma made it clear the TRIPS waiver was a red line the Trudeau government should not cross. The industry’s official voice in Ottawa, Innovative Medicines Canada (which represents Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca), warned that temporarily suspending patents at the WTO would be “a disappointing step that will create greater uncertainty and unpredictability” for the future supply of vaccines.

As occurred in other countries, Big Pharma stepped up its lobbying of the Canadian government significantly just as the TRIPS waiver idea emerged. Over the next year, lobbyists hired by Big Pharma’s vaccine producers contacted politicians and high-ranking civil servants a total of 181 times, or an average of 3 to 4 lobbying visits every week. 

“We do not believe that waiving [intellectual property rights] is an easy answer to the capacity challenges that we face,” Cole Pinnow, CEO of Pfizer Canada, told a parliamentary committee in March 2021. 

Innovative Medicines Canada lobbied elected representatives and government officials 55 times in the past year. Lobbyists for U.S.-based pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (via one of its affiliated companies, Janssen Inc.) paid designated office holders in Canada a combined 116 visits since October 2020. 

Pfizer’s lobbying effort increased a staggering seven times relative to previous years while lobbyists for Johnson & Johnson met with officials nearly twice as often as they had on average in the years between 2015 and 2019. Representatives for Moderna and AstraZeneca, smaller companies with a fraction of Pfizer’s revenues, nevertheless lobbied officials five times between October 2020 and October 2021.

The challenge to Big Pharma’s vaccine monopoly at the WTO was a key concern, records show. At least 28 lobbying contacts were with ministers and high-level bureaucrats responsible for international trade policy at the WTO. Innovative Medicines Canada’s filing lists “World Trade Organization (WTO) issues concerning the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) with respect to the protection of data, Access to Medicines, and TRIPs ‘flexibility’” as one of the issues discussed. Pfizer’s lobbying of politicians and bureaucrats included discussions “around the World Trade Organization consideration of a TRIPS Patent Waiver,” according to lobbying records. Many of these meetings coincided with key moments in the debate over the TRIPS waiver.

Big Pharma lobbyists enjoyed access to the top echelons of political power in Canada, access they had previously struggled to get. Before the pandemic, lobbyists complained that Trudeau and his top ministers would rarely sit down to talk with them—and that when they did, they would not really listen. But from October 2020 to October 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland met with Big Pharma’s representatives five times (plus five other meetings with Freeland’s top advisor). 

Big Pharma’s lobbyists knew a friend in need when they saw one—and used their leverage to the maximum. The vaccine rollout meant the Trudeau government “quickly realized that we now have a common desire to work together on a hot topic,” Pfizer Canada’s Pinnow told Maclean’s in February 2021. Heavily redacted vaccine contract documents reveal that Canada paid a very steep premium to Pfizer and Moderna to ensure timely deliveries in the initial scramble for deals.  The contracts also banned Canada from donating surplus doses to lower-income countries. This surrender of control over vaccine surpluses to Pfizer and Moderna, which together have provided over 95 per cent of Canada’s vaccines, largely explains Canada’s lamentable donations record. 

The Trudeau government only renegotiated to modify this provision and allow donations in late October 2021. Donations of Moderna vaccines have started, and overall donations by Canada have gone up since late October—but this is difficult to track since the government doesn’t reliably update data.

Obstructing the People’s Vaccine

Despite its huge investment in lobbying, Big Pharma seemed poised to lose control over the debate at the WTO in early 2021. 

India and South Africa’s call for a TRIPS waiver got a tremendous boost in May 2021 when the U.S. unexpectedly declared its support for temporarily lifting patents. “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement backing a limited waiver on vaccines. “We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen.”

For Big Pharma, the announcement was taken as “a gut-punch to the pharmaceutical industry,” according to Bloomberg News. “Inside Pfizer it set off a scramble, with executives holding meetings questioning how the company could have been blindsided on the issue, according to people familiar with the situation.” 

The campaign for a “People’s Vaccine” was gaining momentum, backed by a growing movement of civil society groups and global health advocates in both the Global North and South. The Biden administration’s announcement came after months of public pressure from Senator Bernie Sanders and other legislators. New Zealand quickly followed suit, declaring their support for a TRIPS waiver shortly thereafter. 

When asked about the TRIPS waiver in a press conference shortly after the surprise move by the U.S., Justin Trudeau claimed to welcome the shift but refused to say whether his government supported or opposed the call for a temporary suspension of vaccine patents. Trudeau insisted that Canada was not involved in holding up negotiations at the WTO. “I can assure you that Canada is not interfering or blocking, Canada is very much working to find a solution that works for everyone,” Trudeau told reporters.

But Ravi Kanth of the Third World Network observed the Prime Minister’s words were not reflected in the actions of Canada’s trade negotiators in Geneva: “Canada claims to not be opposed to the TRIPS waiver, and yet has consistently created hurdles in discussions on the waiver, including refusing to proceed to text-based negotiations.” Tellingly, the U.S.-based lobby group PhRMA—which represents 30 pharmaceutical corporations and counts Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson among its members—identified Canada as one of the nations opposed to the TRIPS waiver in a March 2021 letter to President Biden.

Behind the scenes, Trudeau government officials responsible for Canadian trade policy at the WTO were being intensively lobbied by Big Pharma representatives. On April 29, 2021, lobbyists from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Innovative Medicines Canada lobbied Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne and his policy advisor about international trade and intellectual property rights—right before an April 30 meeting of the WTO’s TRIPS Council, where negotiations over India and South Africa’s proposal were on the agenda. Pfizer dispatched lobbyists to Champagne again a few days later, likely aiming to do damage control on the heels of the U.S. announcement.

The Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) was a frequent entry point to the Trudeau government for the vaccine profiteers. Within Trudeau’s cabinet, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne has “made it a mission to rebuild bridges with Big Pharma,” according to the Globe and Mail’s Konrad Yakabuski. Tasked with piloting a $2.2 billion package of subsidies for the pharmaceutical industry, ISED was in frequent contact with the industry’s representatives, lobbying records show. Minister Champagne has met with Innovative Medicines Canada, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson lobbyists on nine separate occasions since October 2020 while high-ranking members of his Ministry have met with Big Pharma representatives fifteen times.

After the U.S. declared that it supported a limited waiver, the vaccine makers mobilized to make sure the Trudeau government did not follow in the Biden administration’s steps. The next day, Innovative Medicines Canada issued a press release declaring that it “does not support the proposed TRIPS IP waiver for COVID-19 vaccines at the WTO.” The industry lobby group urged Canada to reject India and South Africa’s proposal to expand production via generic manufacturing, suggesting that any tampering with their monopoly could “undermine vaccine production or negatively impact public health.”

Innovative Medicine Canada’s veiled threat that endorsing a TRIPS waiver at the WTO could disrupt Canada’s vaccine supply must have been especially disconcerting to the Trudeau government. At the time, in the spring of this year, our domestic vaccination effort was just ramping up, after several months of difficulties ensuring a consistent supply from production sites in Europe. Lacking domestic manufacturing facilities for any of the four major vaccine producers, Canada was in an especially vulnerable position.

To make sure the message was understood, Pfizer and Innovative Medicines Canada each lobbied International Trade Minister Mary Ng and her chief of staff on May 12. Two days later, Innovative Medicines Canada contacted Steve Verheul, the deputy minister responsible for Canada’s trade policy at the WTO and other forums. Pfizer lobbyists followed up with Verheul on May 27. All of these communications had to do with international trade and intellectual property rights, according to the lobby registry.

At the WTO, Canadian trade negotiators frequently echoed Big Pharma talking points. While the Delta variant ravaged India and other countries, Canada’s permanent representative at the Geneva-based body argued that an intellectual property rights waiver was unnecessary and that vaccine shortages were caused by other factors. Canadian officials repeatedly requested detailed evidence from the countries sponsoring the motion to prove that a waiver was necessary, which the South African delegation denounced as a “classic tactic to stall matters.” After receiving answers from South Africa and other countries, Canada launched parallel negotiating processes with the EU, Norway and the UK that excluded the issue of the TRIPS waiver.

As a result of these maneuvers, WTO discussions of a TRIPS waiver have been bogged down for over a year. Big Pharma is clearly satisfied with the work done on its behalf. Innovative Medicines Canada has offered fulsome praise for the Trudeau government’s “ongoing collaboration” with the industry, declaring that Canadian trade officials “should be commended for their work at the World Trade Organization (WTO).” 

Two-faced Canada

The obvious gulf between Canada’s words and deeds has not gone unnoticed. 

In response to the Trudeau government’s imposition of flight bans following South Africa’s identification of the Omicron variant last week, the South African High Commissioner to Canada, Sibongiseni Dlamini-Mntambo, denounced Canada’s role in perpetuating “vaccine apartheid” and called for an end to its obstructionism at the WTO. “Unfortunately, Canada is one of those countries that have not supported us [in the fight by temporarily suspending patents],” she lamented.

As Bolivia’s Vice-Minister, Benjamin Blanco, told Canadian media back in October, “we are confused. Canada in multilateral organizations uses one discourse, but in practice, we see another action.” 

The flight bans and other restrictions related to the current wave of COVID-19 cases in Europe have caused the cancellation of this week’s long-anticipated Ministerial meeting of the WTO in Geneva (something actually called for a week ago by civil society groups critical of Canada’s role in maintaining that “vaccine apartheid”, both because of inequitable nature of infection prevention measures and due to the continued lack of progress on the TRIPS waiver ). 

On the other hand, the TRIPS waiver proposal was the central issue on the table. Critics are urging Canada and other holdout countries to call an emergency online meeting of the WTO General Council to finally lift the patents. 

“What we need is political will,” said Bolivia’s Blanco a month ago. “We need the governments of developed countries to be able to think of life before the interests of a few transnational pharmaceutical companies.”

Earlier this week, Canada’s UN ambassador Bob Rae tweeted out his support for “waiving patents” as part of a comprehensive global vaccination plan. But two days later, Rae was sent out to the media to walk back his indiscreet tweets.

For a moment, it looked like Canada might bow to the growing pressure. But there is not yet any indication that Trudeau will turn his back on Big Pharma.