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Domestic, publicly-owned production key for Canada’s vaccine-security

Moderna’s new, Quebec-based vaccine manufacturing facility is not a cause for celebration, it’s another signal that the government is putting the profit motives of Big Pharma ahead of public health. On November 7th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant in Laval, Quebec, which is slated to begin production by the end of 2024.

At the ceremony, Trudeau claimed that the Moderna plant would allow Canada to ensure greater accessibility around the world to vaccines in future pandemics. But the Council of Canadians warns that Moderna is unlikely to change its business practices. “Cutting a deal with these vaccine profiteers won’t do anything to change that mentality or reduce unequal access to vaccines – on the contrary, it will entrench it,” says Nikolas Barry-Shaw, Trade and Privatization campaigner at the Council of Canadians.

In the first year of the vaccine rollout, Moderna sold the overwhelming majority (69 per cent) of its doses to high-income countries while sending less than 2 per cent to low-income countries. The rollout of updated vaccines and antiviral treatments is following the same globally unequal pattern, which the World Health Organization has dubbed “vaccine apartheid.”

“Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel and other Big Pharma CEOs have placed making money – obscene amounts of money – over saving lives and ensuring everyone has access to vaccines,” says Barry-Shaw. “Their hunger for profits has caused millions of preventable deaths and fostered the proliferation of new variants.” And the products they’ve been profiting from have been developed largely by the public sector. Moderna received over $2.5 billion in U.S. government subsidies for the development of its vaccine, which is based on decades of university-based research. Key elements of the mRNA vaccine, lipid nanoparticles, were developed at the University of British Colombia.

“Protecting Canadians isn’t about making sure we’re closer to the head of the vaccine queue the next time around,” said Barry-Shaw. “It’s about ending the control Moderna and other pharma profiteers have over life-saving medicines and making sure everyone has access to vaccines and other essential medicines.”

The health security provided by the vaccine manufacturing plant is illusory, according to the Council of Canadians. “Vaccinating only the wealthiest while leaving the rest of the world unprotected ultimately does not keep us safe.” said Barry-Shaw. “As Omicron showed, it’s a recipe for a never-ending pandemic.”

“We know from Canada’s experience with the publicly-owned Connaught Labs that developing, producing and distributing vaccines doesn’t have to be a zero-sum ‘Hunger Games’,” said Barry-Shaw. “To break free from the artificial scarcity imposed on all of us, we need to create a public option in pharmaceuticals, combined with knowledge sharing and technology transfer across borders so that no one is left behind.”