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Budget 2021: Time to Invest in a Publicly-Owned Biotech Company to Make Future Vaccines

For the upcoming federal budget, the Institute has put together a blog series exploring key areas the federal government must take immediate action on to continue to effectively respond, and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our three-part blog series includes submissions in the areas of: Investing in the Caring Economy; Taxing the Rich; and, Vaccination

The Trudeau government should use its upcoming 2021 budget to cancel the $415 million that it plans to invest in the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi. This $415 million investment, announced just last month, is a reckless use of public money.

It is intended to be a contribution to the expansion of Sanofi’s vaccine production facilities in Canada, in the hope that Sanofi will provide vaccines to Canadians on a priority basis in a future pandemic. But Ottawa has no contract with Sanofi; it is currently trying to negotiate one that would guarantee Canadians priority access to future Sanofi vaccines. The fact that Ottawa has announced an investment of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in a private company, without a fully-worked-out contract in place, reveals a slip-shod, irresponsible approach to public finance.

Instead, the Trudeau government should use the budget to redirect that $415 million towards the creation of a publicly-owned Canadian biotech company – modelled on the lines of the exceptional one we had for many years before it was privatized by the Mulroney government.

For seven decades, Connaught Labs was a publicly-owned Canadian biotech enterprise and one of the world’s leading vaccine producers. It developed and produced a wide range of vaccines, which it sold to Canadians at cost and to foreign countries at affordable rates. It channeled its profits into medical research.

Based at the University of Toronto, Connaught became a hub for medical research and innovation. Its scientists, among the best in the world, contributed to some of the key medical breakthroughs of the 20th century, including insulin, penicillin and the polio vaccine. Connaught also played a vital role in a global vaccination campaign that was part of the World Health Organization’s successful effort to rid the world of smallpox.

Rather than handing over hundreds of millions of dollars to a private foreign company, Ottawa should invest that money in an enterprise we own and control, and that could be counted on to put the interests of Canadians first -- as Connaught always did.

The budget is the perfect opportunity to begin creating our own enterprise.

That may sound ambitious, but it wasn’t too ambitious for the visionary Canadians who established Connaught early in the twentieth century.

Linda McQuaig is author of The Sport & Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth.