Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will finally begin domestic production of the COVID-19 vaccine. An agreement between Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) and the U.S.-based Novavax will produce tens of millions of vaccine doses at its Montreal plant — a major step toward meeting the government’s mass vaccination objectives.
This is all very welcome news. In recent weeks, Canadians have become increasingly frustrated by ongoing delays surrounding the government’s vaccine procurement strategy. Both Pfizer and Moderna halted vaccine shipments to Canada back in late January in order to carry out maintenance work on their European production facilities. While deliveries from Europe are expected to resume later this month, initial shipments will likely contain a lower number of doses than originally anticipated. The Novavax announcement has given many Canadians renewed hope that the government will be taking vaccine production into its own hands.
But is it all too little, too late?
Setting aside the fact that Health Canada has yet to approve the Novavax vaccine, and that the National Research Council plant that will manufacture the drug hasn’t been fully built – the recent vaccine shortage highlights an underlying flaw within our country’s research and innovation ecosystem. Despite Canada’s efforts to brand itself as a “nation of innovators”, there are major political and institutional barriers that prevent Canada from fully realizing our potential. When it comes to spurring innovation and patents, attracting talent, and retaining capital, Canada is not as far ahead of the curve as it should be.
On the one hand, it’s not entirely fair to compare Canada with the likes of the United States or the European Union, where the bulk of our COVID-19 vaccines are being developed and produced. Both the United States and the E.U. remain the financial capitals of the world. Although Canada sits comfortably among the top twenty countries in terms of GDP by purchasing power parity, the Americans and Europeans hold at least ten times as much power. Not to mention, Canada’s nearly 40 million people pales in comparison to the populations of the U.S. and the E.U.
On the other hand, Canada is sitting atop a goldmine of arguably untapped potential. We have consistently ranked as the OECD’s most educated country, with 56.7% of adults holding a post-secondary degree in 2019. If anyone should be leading the world in vaccine development, production, and distribution, it’s us. But it’s not. If Canada does not wish to find itself at the mercy of foreign governments and corporations again in the near future, our leaders must develop a more proactive approach to leveraging our national brain trust into a global economic, technological, and political advantage.
To clarify, the blame does not fall squarely on the governing Liberals nor on the Conservatives who ran the country for a decade before them. Rather, Canada’s reliance on other countries for vaccine development and procurement has been a long-time coming, arguably since the federal government began to pull back resources for domestic manufacturing in the 1980s.
The abdication of support for research and innovation applies to more than just vaccines. Consider Canada’s tech industry: government officials frequently boast about our country’s role as a hub to the world’s burgeoning artificial intelligence and machine learning industry. Indeed, the federal government launched the world’s first national AI strategy in 2017 and Canada is home to several internationally renowned AI laboratories and leading companies. Yet, this strategy only set aside a budget of $125 million over five years — that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the public funding available to research institutes and start-ups south of the border. Is it any wonder that Canada’s tech darlings, like Element AI, are packing their bags for the more fertile grounds of Silicon Valley?
The same goes for other areas of Canada’s tech and innovation ecosystem. In 2017, the Liberals earmarked $918 million over five years for the Innovation Superclusters Initiative. But a report published by the Parliamentary Budget Office this past fall determined that the initiative has been falling short of expectations, particularly when it comes to
Ultimately, it is good news that Canada will be bolstering vaccine production capacity. But like many things COVID-related, the road it took to get here shows us that Canada could be — and should be — doing better.