THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 12, Season 10
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guests: Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block:
Dawna Friesen, Global National Anchor: “The first vaccine for COVID-19 will soon be on its way to Canada.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Hope on the horizon. Health Canada approves the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “This is a big deal, Mr. Speaker. It is a good news day for Canadians. We will see 30,000 vaccines begin to arrive next week, with many more on the horizon.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The president of Pfizer Canada weighs in on what it will take for made-in-Canada medical breakthroughs.
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: “We’ve been extremely impressed with the way the Canadian government has partnered to bring this COVID-19 vaccine to Canadians as soon as possible. And unfortunately, we don’t see that same level of collaboration when it comes to other therapies outside of the pandemic.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And a very COVID Christmas: numbers continue to rise.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada: “About 100,000 new cases have been reported across the country in just the last three weeks.”
Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, December 13th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
After months of probing, Canadians finally have some answers on Canada’s plan for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Just last week, Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The plan is to start distributing it as soon as this week, but that will be no easy task. We know the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has some limitations when it comes to storage and distribution. So what can we expect in the coming days? When can Canadians expect to be rolling up their sleeves?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada joins me now. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Cole.
You know, this is a scientific advancement, this incredible vaccine that it going to be rolled out. A lot of Canadians, though, still have some questions about it. It is a new technology. It is something called mRNA. Can you explain to us a little bit about what the vaccine is and how it works?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: It’s a great question and I understand how the new technology is confusing for people. So at a very basic level, the traditional vaccine that people are used to getting when they get the flu shot is an inactivated version of the virus that’s injected into the body. But this mRNA vaccine is a genetic sequence that alerts the body to the program necessary to express the spike protein of the coronavirus in the human body themselves. So the need for actually growing the virus in a manufacturing facility isn’t required to use this new technology.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think when you think about the flu shot, it’s pretty easy to get. You just go down to your pharmacy and you can receive it there. This has to be stored at minus 70 or below. What is it about this vaccine that requires that ultra-cold storage? And is that something you expect will change in the future? Are you still trying to modify the vaccine and work on it?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: A big part of the reason we were able to bring this to market so quickly and as short in the development cycle, is because we made a conscious effort to stop formulation development as soon as we felt we had something we could bring to the clinical trials. So we are going to do what would have been done normally on the frontend of the development work. We’re going to now do that on the backend. We, in no way, compromised the safety of the product. This just minimized some of the handling possibilities and storage conditions that we think is possible with the product. We’ll develop those throughout 2021, and hopefully change the storage conditions from minus 70 to minus 20 and then hopefully, eventually, room temperature.
Mercedes Stephenson: There have been significant reports of side-effects. Things like fever, chills, headaches, people in 30 and 40 per cent in some cases of those receiving the vaccine experiencing those side effects. We’ve also heard about allergic reactions. We’ve heard about reports of Bell’s palsy. Some people say look, this vaccine was just developed. It hasn’t been around very long. It has these reports of side-effects. Is it safe?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: The product is absolutely safe. We have conducted clinical studies in 44,000 patients, which is just as robust as any other vaccine that would come to market. So we have a high degree of confidence that the decision made by Health Canada, the rigour in which they conducted their review, the scientific expertise that’s been applied to all the data that’s been generated to date, it really tells us that we have full confidence in the use of this vaccine. Now, we absolutely recognize that as with any vaccine, there are going to be mild side-effects that one can expect, but the common flu vaccine has those same indications that you mentioned. And as far as the risk of allergies, we do list all the products that are in our vaccine so that people can see if they have a history against any of those ingredients to know that it’s contraindicated for use in those patients.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you know how long immunity lasts after you receive the vaccine?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: We’re continuing to study that in 2021.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, any kind of a range? Is it weeks, days, months, years? Or we just really don’t know?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: Well we have the benefit of the clinical study that was conducted earlier this year. All those patients will be continued to be monitored going forward. So as we collect that data, we’ll able to submit that to Health Canada and provide an answer to that very valuable question.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things about your vaccine is that it requires a double dose. The initial recommendation, as I understand it, from your company was that when provinces receive these doses, they labelled them and made sure that a patient got a first and second dose. Some provinces are now saying that they may just dose as many people as possible and that they believe Pfizer will be able to deliver a second shipment to do that follow up within 21 days on the required shots. What is your advice to provinces on how they divvy up the vaccines they receive?
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the questions for Canadians is why the vaccine wasn’t being made in Canada. Why we didn’t have a facility that was capable of that. It’s coming from Belgium. Obviously, you are the CEO of a huge pharmaceutical company so why is it that we don’t have these facilities in Canada? What is the deterrent to industry to building these kinds of developmental facilities in this country?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: We’ve been extremely impressed with the way the Canadian government has partnered to bring this COVID-19 vaccine to Canadians as soon as possible. And unfortunately, we don’t see that same level of collaboration when it comes to other therapies outside of the pandemic and so we’d really like to partner with the government to find ways to change their current policies that really deter the capital investment that brings innovative technology in the pharmaceutical sector to Canada.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that we’ve heard from industry sources is that it’s the low price of drugs in Canada that in part, deters that investment and that if the government brings in pharmacare, it could magnify that deterrent. What are your thoughts on that?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: We’re very concerned with the proposed changes to the pricing reform, PMPRB as it’s called, that it’s due to go into effect on January 1st. This type of further restriction on the incentives to bring innovative new products to Canada really jeopardizes Canadians opportunity to have breakthrough medicines and other therapies moving forward. So, we’d really like to partner with the government. Unfortunately, over the past four years, we haven’t been able to engage in a meaningful conversation. So we’re hoping that with the demonstrated success of our partnership on COVID-19 that that’ll really service as a benchmark for us to partner going forward.
Mercedes Stephenson: What does the Canadian government need to do, to make sure that the vaccine for COVID-2026 is being manufactured here in Canada?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: So what we’ve encouraged them to do is consider a proposal that we’ve had on the table for a good portion of 2020, which is that we want to bring meaningful savings to Canadians on prices. We recognize the tremendous financial pressure that the economy is feeling as a result of the pandemic. We’ve offered a path forward that could bring $19 billion in savings there.
We’ve also put on the table a proposal where we would work in partnership with the government to develop world-class manufacturing capabilities that would take advantage of the leading life sciences sector in Canada, take all their great ideas around discovery and provide the Canadian people with the capabilities to turn those into new therapies going forward. That’s the biggest gap that exists and that’s why you’re hearing questions around why doesn’t Canada have technologies such as mRNA, in order to produce these products locally.
And then third, there’s a real concern around rare disease. We’ve made a point of emphasis that it’s important. Everyday matters to Canadians, to bring this COVID-19 vaccine to market as soon as possible. There are other therapies that are just as important to Canadians in a smaller segment of the population. And we want to improve access. Canada’s the only western market that doesn’t have a rare disease framework in place today. We think that’s a travesty. There are real solutions we can take from Europe, make a made-in-Canada solution and apply that to the new policy going forward.
So, we have these solutions and a willingness to partner. We just need the government to step forward and begin the discussion in earnest.
Mercedes Stephenson: In the meantime, as we wait for vaccines to come to us from Europe, is there any concern that Canadians should have that potentially another country could buy-out the vaccine supply we’ve secured from under us? Or in the case when it’s coming through the United States because I understand Pfizer has to go to the U.S. first and then into Canada because of the shipper you’re using that we could be cut off from access if the Americans say no. You know what? We’re just going to keep this here.
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: Pfizer is committed to meeting its contractual obligations. And so we absolutely have the highest degree of confidence that our contractual obligations to deliver 20 million doses to Canada will definitely be realized. And although the pathway right now is to bring the product through the U.S., because the product is produced in Belgium, we have alternative pathways to bringing the product to Canada. We’ve evaluated the executive order that’s been signed. And we believe that right now, we are confident in our ability to avoid any sort of near term disruptions. But again, in the bigger picture, we don’t anticipate this to be a problem.
Mercedes Stephenson: Lots of Canadians worried about that with President Trump signing that executive order and something we experienced with PPE earlier in the pandemic.
One last question for you, Mr. Pinnow: You’ve been working primarily with governments, but I’m wondering if private organizations, companies or someone like the NFL or the NHL approached you to buy vaccines, would you sell to them?
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: Right now, we’ve fully committed and built our global supply plan based upon the contracts that we’ve signed with governments. And so we’re really differing to the governments to figure out what the best way is to allocate their product. And I appreciate the interest. We absolutely would love to respond to all the individual inquiries we’ve received, but we really feel that government is in the best position to determine an equitable distribution amongst its population. And so we’re excited to see that they’re choosing the most vulnerable first and that general Canadians, such as myself, will wait patiently until the vaccine is ready and available for us.
Mercedes Stephenson: Cole, thank you so much for joining us.
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Pandemic procurement and interview with Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand is up next.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back to The West Block.
Joining us now is Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand. Minister, I think this is our first time having you on the show, so thank you so much for joining us.
We just heard from the president of Pfizer Canada. In his interview, he said that one of the challenges to getting a Canadian made vaccine, which is something a lot of Canadians would like to see, is your government’s policies. And in fact, he said that the current policies the government have in place, really deters capital investment and that’s partially why we don’t see the facilities that Europe and other countries have. What is your response to that?
Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well I can speak to the vaccine procurements that we have put in place over the last number of months. We have agreements with seven suppliers and we have the highest number of doses per capita of any country in the world. And one of those suppliers, indeed, is Medicago, based in Quebec so that directly counters Mr. Pinnow’s argument. And in addition, we have invested $126 million in the NML facility in Montreal as well as millions of dollars in research facilities across the country, including VIDO-InterVac out West. So we are working on a two-track system to make sure we have a very diverse portfolio of vaccines on the one hand and investing in domestic manufacturing and research on the other
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, your government had said part of the reason why we weren’t going to see the vaccine as quickly as other countries, though, were because we don’t have domestic manufacturing capability for this kind of a vaccine. I do want to play you part of a clip from the interview with the president of Pfizer Canada on what he had to say about an upcoming change your government is making. And this is has to do with the pricing of drugs and a new regulatory regime that will kick-in, in January of 2021. He says it will make the situation even worse for attracting investment in pharmaceutical development in Canada. Listen to this.
Cole Pinnow, President of Pfizer Canada: “This type of further restriction on the incentives to bring innovative new products to Canada really jeopardizes Canadians opportunity to have breakthrough medicines and other therapies moving forward. So we’d really like to partner with the government. Unfortunately, over the past four years, we haven’t been able to engage in a meaningful conversation.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Pfizer Canada says that they do have a proposal before your government that they say would save Canadians $19 billion. Do you agree with Pfizer and are you willing to shift off those regulatory changes that they say would drive off pharmaceutical investment?
Mercedes Stephenson: Yes, but your government had said that we wouldn’t be first because we don’t have domestic capability. That’s just why—when you brought up domestic capability, I wanted to clarify that.
Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: That’s great. And I will say that as I mentioned, we are working very hard on ramping up domestic production at the same time as securing vaccine doses for Canadians. That’s the two-track system I mentioned and we’ve got to make sure, first and foremost, that we’re protecting the health of Canadians and that’s why we’ve been so aggressive on our vaccine procurements. At the same time, the Minister of Innovation is working very hard on ramping up domestic production as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: And I think a lot of Canadians would love to see that domestic production because remember early in the vaccine, we were all talking about the concerns that if the international supply chain shutdown, what would happen when so many Canadian vital drugs and pharmaceutical products come from overseas in places like China. Your government had discussed onshoring those kinds of capabilities, onshoring PPE capabilities so that in the case of another crisis, we’d have immediate access. But what Mr. Pinnow was saying is that the current policies will prevent that from happening. Would you consider changing those policies?
Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well I’ll take you back to the PPE issues at the beginning of the pandemic and indeed, we were reliant on international supply chains. But companies across this country stepped up in their efforts to make PPE here at home and now we’ve secured 2 billion items of PPE and 40 per cent of our contracts by dollar value are with Canadian suppliers. So that is the story, a success story of Canadian manufacturing and it’s going to continue in the years to come across sectors.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the promises that your government has made has to do with pharmacare and we’re still waiting for a lot of the details on that. But in the interview, Pfizer Canada said basically anything that drives down the price of drugs, or not anything, but specific policies make it less likely that you will see innovation and investment. Do you think that this is a choice between affordable drugs with pharmacare for Canadians or the ability to develop a domestic industry?
Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well I actually think, first and foremost, you saw in the fall economic statement that we did make reference to the importance of pharmacare and a national pharmacare program and we vowed to take some steps towards that goal. And it is part of our government’s commitment to assisting vulnerable communities, assisting Canadians across the board.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Ottawa’s national strategy on climate action. Increasing the carbon tax, what it will mean for Canadians. More of my interview with Minister Anand is ahead.
Mercedes Stephenson: On Friday, the federal government announced there will be an increase in the carbon tax. My conversation with Minister Anand continues.
Another big issue, of course, is always the environment. You are a lawyer. On Friday, the government announced that they are going to be increasing the carbon tax, not by an insubstantial amount. When I look at the exact numbers, which I have here, it’s going to be going up to about 27.6 cents per litre of gas for the average person. That will be of course, well after 2022. But this is still before the Supreme Court, whether or not the federal government can impose this kind of a carbon tax. Why come up with these kinds of numbers when you still don’t know if this is constitutional?
Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well one of the important things, and this is certainly a legal issue as between the role of government and the role of the courts, is that governments have the responsibility to put in place programs that the electorate has given them a mandate to do. And indeed, we were elected in 2019, in some measure because of our commitment to environmental sustainability. At the same time, if there are legal issues, such as the one you referred to, it is well within the courts to render their judgements. And as you have seen, as Canadians have seen, we respect the views of the courts and should the decisions be in any way contrary to what we do on the environmental front, we will definitely be making sure that we take that into consideration.
Mercedes Stephenson: This is a time when so many Canadians are struggling financially during the pandemic and now they’re hearing that the carbon tax is going to rise and in fairness, your government is providing a rebate as well. It doesn’t completely cover it, but it makes up for a substantial amount. But my mind goes to the people out in Alberta who were told there was going to be sectorial support for oil and gas from your government that never came. They’ve been hit by the pandemic. They’ve been hit by low oil prices. This is will hit them again. What do you say to Canadians in Alberta who are watching the program right now?
Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well my concern, of course, is the same as our governments and that is to ensure that there are supports in place across our economic sectors as well as across our populations because of the suffering that has occurred as a result of COVID-19. And that’s why our government has put in place across the board, economic sectors for small businesses, for those who are unemployed, for those who need wage subsidies, for the disabled, for the homeless and the list goes on. And so we are a government that does, indeed, take into account the needs of Canadians, especially the most vulnerable and this will not change. It’s very important to remember that we are here for Canadians across the board until we get to the other side and beyond.
Mercedes Stephenson: But what about those Canadians who work in oil and gas when they see this? I mean, they’ve not received any additional specific supports. Is that not coming?
Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: There was mention in the fall economic statement for further sectorial support and that’s still under consideration with our government. In addition, you will have to remember that we did purchase the pipeline and we are in the process of continuing to build that pipeline because of our commitment to sectors like the oil and gas sector out west in Alberta. So indeed, it is a priority for us. But the key message of our government, and I want to reiterate for Canadians generally, is that economic sustainability goes hand in hand with our environmental programs. And we need to make sure that we don’t think of these two things as being separate. That’s why you have major pension funds coming out today and saying that environmental sustainability and ESG factors are at the forefront of their investment portfolio and considerations they take into account because the environment is indeed, something that we all have a responsibility to protect and that’s what our government’s announcement today signifies.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Anand, thank you so much for your time. We know you’re very busy procuring important things for the nation. We appreciate you joining us.
Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anan: Thank you so much. Take care.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. See you next week.