At this time last year as we all prepared for BIO, it was becoming increasingly clear the COVID-19 pandemic was to be a significant and lengthy period of challenge with no evident easy fixes or miracles. One year later, the health and economic cost of the pandemic is staggering: The WHO has estimated over three million people have died due to COVID while the IMF has pegged the cost to the global economy between $20 and $30 trillion dollars. From the onset of the pandemic, it was the science and innovation of the biotech sector which was seen to be central to getting society and the economy off Zoom and back to the normal we once knew and likely underappreciated. Thankfully, with the approval of several highly effective vaccines, this sector has delivered in an unprecedented way and will continue to be relied upon going forward to both stay ahead of a mutating virus and guard against future pandemics.
In the early days of the pandemic while COVID worked its way through the world, there was an urgent need for quick and strategic thinking to identify effective therapeutics and high potential vaccine candidates. The Canadian government recognized outside expertise was needed which led to the establishment of separate Vaccine and Therapeutic Task Forces which were used to inform the COVID-19 decision-making process. Both Task Forces counted as members key leaders from the BIOTECanada community. Based on advice provided by the Task Forces, the government secured access to vaccines from global manufacturers and importantly invested strategically to accelerate promising COVID-focused Canadian technologies/companies including AbCellera, VBI Vaccines, Precision NanoSystems, VIDO InterVac, Medicago, and IMV.
From an economic recovery perspective, the significant IPOs and financing deals involving Canadian biotech companies in 2020 and early 2021 demonstrate the economic potential of Canadian biotechs. Mirroring the trends globally, Canadian biotechs saw significant investments and successful IPOs as investors increasingly recognized the opportunity the sector’s growing economic and social importance offers. As is the case elsewhere, while some sectors will be understandably slow to recover, the biotech sector is one that can pace the recovery. Indeed, it is one of the few sectors to have shown its resiliency throughout the pandemic and is now poised for another leap forward.
The other important objective of governments everywhere is to prepare for a future pandemic. To this end, the federal government has clearly recognized the importance of learning from the current pandemic and has identified a goal of increasing domestic biomanufacturing capacity as central to Canada’s rapid response to future COVID 19-like challenges. The federal budget delivered in late April signalled the government’s intention to dedicate significant financial and policy resources to enhancing the strength and overall global competitiveness of Canada to create and grow biotech companies as well as improve domestic biomanufacturing capacity. Importantly, Canada is well-positioned with two large scale, established commercial facilities in Sanofi-Pasteur (Toronto) and GSK (Quebec City). In addition, Canadian companies, Medicago (currently building its new Quebec City facility for its plant-based vaccine technology and is expected to begin producing its promising COVID-19 vaccine candidate in the second half of 2022), and BioVectra are both significant biomanufacturing assets. All told, there is in place a solid and valuable biomanufacturing foundation in Canada which should be recognized and built upon going forward. Investing more in enhancing this foundation will not only help meet the preparedness objective, but if done strategically, it can also generate and support early-stage companies in Canada.
While early vaccination rates in Canada were slow out of the gate, on a percentage of population basis, rates are improving quickly, and Canada is now behind only the US and the UK within the G7. The government’s strategy has enabled Canada to meet the challenge of moving towards community immunity in the fall and addressing the variants on the horizon. With some light at the end of what has been a long tunnel, the government is now able to also focus on the process of rebuilding the economy and preparing for future pandemics. Based on the experience of the past twelve months, the biotech sector has demonstrated it can play an important, if not primary, role in meeting both objectives both in Canada and globally.
About the Author
President and CEO BIOTECanada
Andrew Casey became president and CEO of BIOTECanada in August, 2012. In his role as President & CEO of BIOTECanada Andrew is responsible for the strategic operations of the Association representing Canada’s biotechnology sector. As the head of BIOTECanada, he is the lead spokesperson for Canada's biotechnology industry communicating on the industry's behalf with government, regulators, international bodies, media and the Canadian public.
This piece was submitted as part of the Global Marketplace at BIO Digital 2021. The NEW Global Marketplace at BIO Digital is designed to be the destination to showcase any region’s biotech strength and elevate its leading companies via high-energy, fast-paced presentations, coupled with live face-to face networking. Learn more here.