Canada has the right mix of research and talent, but it will take more to ensure there’s access to new life-saving drugs

While Canada has what it takes to become a world leader in life sciences and deliver technologies that will improve health outcomes, it is currently falling short. Public policy is the key to unlocking its potential.

At a Public Policy Forum members’ roundtable to discuss how Canada can achieve its potential as a global health and life sciences leader in the next decade, participants largely agreed that, while Canada has the right mix of researchers, biotech talent and clinical centres – and is still a top choice for clinical trials – some practical public policy advancements and a better alignment of strategic plans among policymakers would make it more attractive to investment and innovation.

Terri Lohnes, Founder and President of Tekama Advisory (Health Innovation Consulting) moderated the discussion among participants from private industry, government, the health research ecosystem and Canadian biotech.

The common theme throughout the session was partnership and collaboration. New medicines increasingly come from partnerships between biotechs and the leading biopharmaceutical companies. Lead times for the development of new medicines are long. As a result, Canadian biotechs cannot rely entirely on government funding to grow – they need to attract partners and venture capital. Public policy can help with scaling and de-risking investments.

Investors need to see that innovation is rewarded – that they can get their innovations to Canadian patients in a timely way and have a commercial opportunity at home.

In general, participants agreed that investors see Canada as needing an improved policy framework to reduce investment risks.

Government policy, jurisdictional differences, a lack of process coordination and uncertainty about ultimate return on investment all combine to make Canada a “difficult place to do business,” said one participant – and even “adversarial to selling drugs.”

As for homegrown innovation, “I see too few companies start off with the big ambition to do something at a global scale,” one participant said of Canada’s start-ups.

But another argued that the government is indeed stepping up to entice investment in Canada, as it has for electric vehicle investments – and encouraged those in the industry to identify and tackle lingering, low-cost barriers to help politicians make the public case for further support. The public’s involvement is in fact crucial to the future of pharmaceutical innovation in Canada.

Canadians may need to see how they have skin in the game – that pharmaceutical innovation will benefit them personally. Without industry players having more clarity on timely reimbursement of medicines for patients, Canadians may not gain access to new life-saving drugs. “This is the discussion that I don’t think is taking place,” said one participant.

Canada might need to consider a new model. It could look to a country like Japan, which has developed a faster process for trials and approval of transformative drugs. But the real starting point for change might be in discussions like this one that bring together a powerful cross-section of players, similar to how it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone had “to be at the table.”

“It didn’t matter where you came from, if there was a solution, you were going to figure it out together,” one participant remembered from the pandemic. It will be important not to lose this momentum and get Canada on a better footing to face future challenges.

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