If Canada treated COVID vaccines like it does new cancer medicines, we’d be lucky to receive our first jabs by the middle of next year


And, believe it or not, the federal government is making the delays even longer.

For the past six months, Canadians have quite rightly been preoccupied with the question of supplies of and access to COVID-19 vaccines. When will they arrive? How fast can they be distributed and injected into waiting arms?

Now think for a minute what it would be like for us if, instead of getting our first vaccines in Canada last December and having administered more than 20 million doses by the end of May 2021,[1] we hadn’t received any vaccines yet. None.

And that we’d still have to wait another full year – yes, the middle of 2022 – and likely longer.

Then consider that during all that time, not only had Canada not received any yet but the US, UK and Europe had all they needed. Their populations were fully vaccinated and their lives had returned to normal. But not in Canada. We were still waiting to start.

And our federal government, instead of rushing to speed things up, was insisting it would only buy vaccines if it could pay far less than other rich countries, so there was a strong chance they might not come at all.

Outlandish, you say? Impossible to think about?

Of course, it is outlandish and unacceptable.

But that’s exactly what is happening with all our non-COVID medicines and vaccines, including important new ones for fatal illnesses such as cancer. Canadians are already waiting almost a year and a half longer than Americans and Europeans for these innovative medicines to be approved in Canada.[2] And let’s remember, cancer alone killed more than five times as many Canadians last year than did COVID-19.[3]

So what is the federal government doing about this delay in Canadians getting the new non-COVID treatments they need? Instead of finding ways to shorten the gap, it is about to implement new pricing rules that will make the delays even longer. The changes are already leading to companies deciding not to sell new treatments in Canada at all.[4]

Hard to believe? Certainly, but it’s true. And the same delays would be happening right now with COVID vaccines if the federal government hadn’t changed both its rules and its pricing policies to ensure Canada got close to the front of the line for vaccine supplies. COVID got the government’s attention and action quite rightly was taken. We should learn from this and act to shorten the delays Canadian patients face before accessing new treatments for other serious health issues like cancer. Unfortunately, that’s not what the federal government is doing.

On July 1 this year, new federal rules for pricing of patented medicines will come into effect in Canada with the goal of driving Canadian prices down to that of the median of the 36 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This will bring Canada’s prices down to just above those of the Czech Republic and Poland and lower than those of Mexico, according to the government’s own numbers.[5]

Although not yet in force, these new rules were adopted in 2019, which means pharmaceutical companies were aware of what was coming. As a result, there was a significant drop in the sale of new medicines in Canada in 2019 compared to the previous year (40% decline) and to international trends.[6]

“C.A.R.P. members are really concerned about this issue,” said Bill VanGorder, C.A.R.P.’s Chief Policy Officer. “They told us in a large survey that medicines are very valuable to them and they are very worried about the impact of the new price controls and their ability to access new vaccines and treatments. They are telling us that they think the federal government should reconsider the regulations, as they did to speed access to COVID vaccines.”[7]

The new regulations will also have a negative impact on health research in Canada. “It will affect our entire life sciences industry,” says Dr. Angela Genge, Director of Clinical Research at the Montreal Neurological Institute. “Right now we have patients with rare diseases in Canada whose only access to treatments is through clinical trials of new therapies where there were none before. Babies with spinal muscular atrophy were dying five years ago before the age of two but now they are living if they get the new treatments. While the government focuses on driving down prices on these medical successes, we’re having tremendous difficulty getting those advances to patients. My concern is companies will stop these studies in Canada because there is no long-term hope of operating here.”[8]

National pharmacare along with a rare disease strategy have been promoted by the federal government as key initiatives, but the new pricing rules undermine those efforts. “A national pharmacare program, if we get one, will be absolutely useless if we don’t have access to the best technology provided by new treatments, including ones that are curative, that are being developed and will have huge impact for patients,” said Dr. Jason Field, President and CEO of Life Sciences Ontario. “The industry is more than willing to work with governments in Canada on price and cost solutions, but the answer can’t be just the hammering of the industry with the blunt instrument of price controls.”[9]

Patients agree. “These pricing changes need to be halted. We need a different strategy for getting these new treatments to patients,” said Beth Vanstone from Bradford, Ontario, a member of CF Get Loud, whose daughter, Madi, has cystic fibrosis.  “Patients need to be at the centre of this whole dynamic and heard, but the patient voice is too often ignored, or even worse, silenced. We do everything we can to try to get access to new treatments, and Canada is way behind dozens of other countries in accessing new medicines for cystic fibrosis. We need the country to work with us to make these available, and citizens and patients need to continue to be loud until the federal and provincial governments step up.”[10]

To learn more about this topic and what action you can take, visit carp.ca/accesstomeds


[1] Statistics Canada, COVID-19 Vaccinations in Canada, Vaccines Administered, https://health-infobase.canada.ca/covid-19/vaccine-administration/

[2] Fraser Institute, Canadians wait more than 450 days longer for access to new medicines than Americans and Europeans, News Release, May 13, 2021, https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/timely-access-to-new-pharmaceuticals-in-canada-US-and-EU-newsrelease.pdf

[3] Flanagan R, How Canada’s COVID-19 death toll stacks up to history, CTV News, Jan. 5, 2021, https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/how-canada-s-covid-19-death-toll-stacks-up-to-history-1.5254420

[4] Research Etc., Health Canada Pricing Reform, Research Report, January 21, 2021, https://lifesciencesontario.ca/new-survey-data-federal-drug-pricing-regulations-are-already-stopping-what-canadians-wantaccess-to-new-medicines-as-soon-as-possible/

[5] Patented Medicine Price Review Board, Annual Report 2019, Figure 24, Average Foreign-to-Canadian Price Ratios, Patented Medicines, OECD, 2019, p. 47, https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/pmprb-cepmb/documents/reports-and-studies/annual-report/2019/pmprb-ar-2019-en.pdf

[6] IQVIA Research, June 2020: https://lifesciencesontario.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/EN_LSO_Global-Launch-Benchmarking_Webinar-June22-20_Final.pdf

[7] Zoomer TV, The Zoomer on patented medicine pricing, May 11, 2021: http://thezoomertv.com/videos/patented-medicine-pricing/

[8] Zoomer TV, The Zoomer on patented medicine pricing, May 11, 2021: http://thezoomertv.com/videos/patented-medicine-pricing/

[9] Zoomer TV, The Zoomer on patented medicine pricing, May 11, 2021: http://thezoomertv.com/videos/patented-medicine-pricing/

[10] Zoomer TV, The Zoomer on patented medicine pricing, May 11, 2021: http://thezoomertv.com/videos/patented-medicine-pricing/