TORONTO — The head of the Business Council of Canada is worried about the country's inability to produce vaccines and certain medical supplies, but hopes the pandemic will pressure governments to rectify the situation.
"Canadians saw back in the crisis, when it began last year, that we got caught relying on the integrity of supply chains that were vulnerable to a pandemic," said Goldy Hyder, the council's president and chief executive, in an online discussion hosted by MedicAlert Canada on Thursday.
"Who knew you could only get masks or something from one country? How did that happen? … That innovation needs to be brought back to Canada to some extent."
Hyder's remarks, made in conversation with University Health Netwok infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch and MedicAlert chief executive Leslie McGill, come as Canada nears the anniversary of the first closures of businesses and public spaces because of COVID-19.
The country has spent the last year trying to quell the virus, but also grappling with a lack of vaccines, medical supplies and pharmaceutical manufacturers in Canada.
With most manufacturing facilities for these products located overseas, it has impacted Canada's ability to quickly access personal protective equipment, edge out other countries vying for vaccines and prepare itself to deal with future pandemics.
Hyder is proud of how companies including Canada Goose shifted from making luxury winter coats to scrubs and patient gowns and aviation manufacturer CAE Inc. rushed to start producing ventilators, but said Canada needs to look at pain points the pandemic highlighted too.
"How did we get to the point where Canada can't manufacture vaccines?" he said.
"Canada had that capacity and we lost it and so clearly there has to be analysis of what are the actions that policy-makers took that drove away the investment that would create the manufacturing capabilities for vaccines."
Canada is buying at least 238 million doses of seven different vaccines, but only one is from a Canadian company — Medicago — and none will initially be produced in Canada.
So far the country has been purchasing and receiving vaccines made in the U.S., Germany and Switzerland from Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech.
Earlier this week, Entos Pharmaceuticals in Alberta said a lack of federal funding early in the pandemic kept homegrown COVID-19 vaccines from moving as quickly as international versions.
Dr. Gary Kobinger, a Laval University microbiologist behind Ebola and Zika vaccines, added his non-profit had a COVID-19 vaccine with promising early results last February, but it stalled because they lacked funding.
Hyder has grown used to seeing Canada lack this kind of capital and "muddle through things."
The pandemic has been no different, he said. Canadians have taken pride in having far fewer COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations than the U.S., but Hyder believes that shouldn't be the measure of success.
"We have to aspire to do better and policy is a very big part of that," he said.
"Policies effect the next time, so I am really hoping we don't let ourselves off the hook by saying thank God we did better than the Americans … We need to build back better.
— With files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021.
Companies in this story: (TSX: GOOS, TSX:CAE.TO)
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press