A vaccine being drawn into a needle.
A vaccine being drawn into a needle. Credit: Mufid Majnun / Unsplash Credit: Mufid Majnun / Unsplash

Having squandered half a billion dollars in a fruitless quest to induce drug companies to produce a made-in-Canada vaccine, might the Trudeau government finally be willing to consider a truly innovative solution: public ownership?

Of course, public ownership is an old trick in the government playbook, but it’s fallen so far out of favour in recent decades that it could pass for groundbreaking.

The other thing public ownership has going for it is a stunning track record: Canada’s publicly owned Connaught Labs was one of the world’s leading vaccine manufacturers before the privatization snake-oil salesmen got control of our politics in the 1980s and, for no good reason, the Mulroney government sold Connaught to private interests.

The sheer idiocy of that privatization wasn’t widely appreciated until the onset of the pandemic, when it became clear just how vulnerable we are as a country without Connaught’s vaccine capacity. Since then, the Trudeau government has been bowing and scraping before biotech and pharmaceutical companies — while handing them truckloads of cash — in the hope of coaxing them to produce a vaccine here that Canadians can rely on.

So far, no luck.

The latest failure in this sorry hunt is the shutdown of Medicago, a Quebec biotech firm on which the Trudeau government lavished $173 million, hoping it might just be the one to produce a vaccine here. But that dream collapsed earlier this month when Medicago’s parent company, Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Chemical Group, abruptly pulled the plug.

Oh well, we tried. Or at least we spent a lot of money — which we may or may not bother trying to recover.

Ottawa has also put $415 million into French pharmaceutical Sanofi (which owns the old Connaught facilities in Toronto) and numerous other companies, hoping to secure vaccines.

The one option the Trudeau government seems hell-bent on avoiding is establishing a new version of Connaught Labs: that is, a biotech company, based at a Canadian university, which Canada would own and control — an option advocated by a number of health policy experts, including the University of Toronto’s Leslie Boehm and Gregory P. Marchildo.

Ottawa’s snub of public ownership appears to be rooted in the notion — pushed by business interests — that the private sector always does things better. Not only is this notion unproven but, in the case of the pharmaceutical industry, is downright absurd.

It’s difficult to overstate how well Connaught served Canadians for seven decades. But first let’s quickly note how badly we’re served by Big Pharma.

Take Moderna, the U.S. giant whose supremely lucrative COVID vaccine created at least five new billionaires — even though there was little risk-taking by Moderna since the U.S government paid the development costs.

Now, as its government contract expires, Moderna plans to raise the price of its vaccine — the one U.S. taxpayers already paid to develop — from $20 a dose to $130 a dose. (Pfizer, another Pharma giant whose COVID vaccine was heavily subsidized by Washington, plans a similar price hike.)

Because, well, why not? These are profit-making companies and no one is stopping them.

The actual production cost is less than $3 a dose. But, with their patent monopolies, the companies charge what they please, leaving billions of people unable to afford the vaccine.

Connaught bore no resemblance whatsoever to these corporate money-machines. Started by a Toronto doctor in 1914 and affiliated with U of T, Connaught quickly became a self-sustaining, world-class producer of vaccines and medications, including insulin, all of which it produced and sold basically at cost.

Its top-notch scientists carried out basic research, contributing to some of the key medical breakthroughs of the twentieth century, including the polio vaccine, penicillin and heparin. Connaught also partnered with the World Health Organization in the successful global campaign to eradicate smallpox.

During the pandemic a century ago, Connaught not only provided Canada’s entire supply of domestic vaccines but it exported vaccines to the U.S. and Britain. It’s hard to imagine we could re-create anything as good as Connaught. But couldn’t we at least try?

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...