Vaccine vial. Image credit: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

It’s demoralizing to watch Canada behave like an evil, twisted Robin Hood — taking from poor countries’ meagre supply of vaccines and injecting them into the (comparatively rich) arms of Canadians.

Attempting to justify this ugly behaviour, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau points out that Canada has contributed to COVAX, the international agency established to help poor countries access the vaccine.

Still, Ottawa’s decision to dip into COVAX’s vaccine supply — the only rich country to do so — amounts to what former Canadian UN ambassador Stephen Lewis calls “a violation of the needs of the developing world.”

The words don’t exactly scream “Canada is back!”

The precariousness of the global vaccine supply points to how deeply immoral it is that the pharmaceutical industry has such sweeping life-and-death power, even in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic.

It also highlights Trudeau’s desperation to come up with a domestic vaccine producer now that he’s learned, in a crisis, friendly nations don’t have our interests top of mind; they vaccinate their own first.

Finding a domestic producer has turned out be difficult largely because Canadian governments in recent decades have bought into the corporate credo that discounts the importance of domestic ownership and production.

Accordingly, the Mulroney government merrily sold off Connaught Labs, Canada’s publicly owned biotech company that was one of the world’s leading vaccine producers — a privatization pleasing to pharma companies that had never liked competing with Connaught.

Connaught’s old Toronto plant still operates today and its current owner, French pharma giant Sanofi Pasteur, has a contract with Ottawa for 72 million coronavirus vaccines.

However, the company plans to produce these vaccines primarily at its U.S. and European plants, putting Canada at a “disadvantage,” acknowledged Trudeau. He went on to say Sanofi would likely deliver vaccines first to the countries where they’re produced but “shortly afterwards” would start honouring contracts “they signed with other countries, including Canada.”

So while the privatized Connaught plant remains operational, Canada no longer controls what goes on there — which turns out to matter in a pandemic.

Connaught’s fate illustrates the value of public ownership — and the control that comes with it. In the 1950s, Ottawa’s control over Connaught played a key role in the development of a vaccine against polio.

In addition to helping U.S. scientist Jonas Salk develop the vaccine, Connaught made a crucial contribution after a U.S. manufacturer botched the vaccine’s production, resulting in dozens of infected children.

The entire U.S. polio vaccine program was suspended, leaving the future of the breakthrough vaccine in doubt.

But Ottawa directed Connaught to proceed with Canadian trials using the Salk vaccine, produced by Connaught. The trials were successful, restoring public faith in the vaccine around the world.

Even without Connaught, we could be doing more to wrest control from the all-powerful pharma industry.

Ottawa could, for instance, override the patent rights of drug companies, allowing Canadian generics to produce the vaccines, according to Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom.

But Trudeau won’t do this, apparently fearful of angering drug companies by infringing on their monopolies.

Indeed, in truly cowardly fashion, Ottawa has refused to back a resolution, put forward by dozens of poor countries, asking the World Health Organization (WTO) to waive patent rights so generics can produce the vaccines.

The WTO supports the resolution, but Canada is expected to join other rich countries in voting against it — more evidence of our warped understanding of the Robin Hood legend.

Big Pharma has long been a Big Bully, intimidating countries around the world into granting extensive patent rights — on the grounds drug companies need gigantic monopoly profits to fund their research.

In fact, the basic research for most drugs is funded by governments, as U.S. economist Mariana Mazzucato has shown.

Washington paid virtually the entire $2.5-billion cost of developing the Moderna vaccine. (Dolly Parton threw in $1 million — more than the company, whose shareholders will reap the rewards.)

Allowing pharma giants to control access to vaccines during a pandemic is foolish — if not suicidal — especially when better solutions exist, like creating our own publicly owned pharma company or overriding patents which only serve to enrich the world’s richest drug barons.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author of The Sport & Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

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...