S05 E05

The Post-Pandemic Life Sciences Landscape

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Dr. Jason Field
President & CEO
Life Sciences Ontario

In the fifth episode of our fifth season, our host Peter Brenders talks with Dr. Jason Field, President & CEO of Life Sciences Ontario, about vaccine mandates in the Canadian workplace, post-pandemic investments in biomanufacturing, and the place of PMPRB in the pharma landscape.

LIONA SPRECHEN-SIE:
 

From the Chronicle Podcast System, this is the NPC Podcast of the National Pharmaceutical Congress for August 18, 2021. The NPC Podcast was created to discuss and consider the purpose, process, and people of the pharma industry during the year of Covid. So, let's continue the healthcare conversation by answering questions sent by listeners, just like you. 

 

This program is presented in cooperation with Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner. The industry is rapidly evolving and Impres is designed to help you evolve with it. Learn more about Impres tailored best in class solutions at www.impres.com.

 

Our guest today is Dr. Jason Field of Life Sciences Ontario in Toronto. Jason will speak with your host Peter Brenders about how LSO fosters commercial success for Ontario's Life Sciences sector through advocacy and education. 

 

But first, here is Mitch Shannon, CEO of Chronicle Companies. He may have a question for Dr. Field to field.

 

MITCH SHANNON (MS):

 

Liona, you shouldn't encourage me to make puns about our guests' surnames. But if you insist, let me introduce a guest who is at the top of his field. He's one of the most effective advocates for our sector and a good friend of the National Pharma Congress. And it's been made clear to Peter that Peter is only allowed one pun, and he needs to get it out of the way quickly. 

 

So with that in mind, here's Dr. Field in conversation with Peter.

 

PETER BRENDERS (PB):

 

Welcome to the NPC Podcast, I'm Peter Brenders, your host. In our continuing look at the purpose, process, and people in pharma in Canada.

 

This episode takes a look at the evolving environment for companies in Canada, in particular, we’re going to have a field day covering some of the hot topics involving the pandemic and its impact on Canadian industry. And to help us explore this topic. We're delighted to have one of Canada's leading industry champions, Dr. Jason Field, President and CEO of Life Sciences Ontario. 

 

Welcome to the NPC Podcast, Jason.

 

DR. JASON FIELD (JF):

 

Thanks, Peter. Thanks for inviting me.

 

PB:

 

Before we jump into the hot topics, I was hoping you can set the stage for our audience with a little background on Life Sciences Ontario. And how is your organization at the front end of some of these issues? 

 

JF:

 

Sure. So Life Sciences Ontario, or LSO, is a not-for-profit industry association. But I like to always say that we're a little different than most industry associations, and that we don't just represent industry. Our members are academic institutes, we have student members, we have service providers, as well as companies big and small across the life sciences spectrum, which isn't just medtech, but also includes agri-food and industrial biotechnology as well.

 

So you can see we have a really broad based membership that really represents all of life sciences across the province. Our organization runs a number of different programs, we have a scholarship program, mentorship program, business support programs for our business members. But our primary activity is really around advocacy, Peter. 

 

And what gives us a unique perspective is because we're representing not a specific group within life sciences, but the whole sector, we tend to focus on issues and topics that have broad impact across the industry gives us a lot of credibility as well, we always approach our advocacy from a science based and evidence based perspective as well. And because of that, we've been quite successful in terms of elevating the voice around big issues that are happening within the life sciences industry.

 

PB:

 

Okay, so let's dive into some of those big issues then. So I mean, you're seeing a lot of topics from many perspectives. Let's start with the hot topic that everyone's seen out there and talk about the pandemic a little bit. So what do you think the pandemic has done for Canada's pharma industry?

 

JF:

 

Yeah, I mean, it's not just pharma, I would say med tech equally so as well. I mean, it really has thrown Life Sciences broadly into the spotlight. But I think pharma specifically, you know, around vaccines. I mean, you never heard the general public having conversations around the breakfast table about mRNA vaccines prior to the pandemic. So certainly, we are part of the popular conversation and dialogue. 

 

Now, we have been part of the solution to this pandemic. And I think that that's a really good thing for the industry in terms of our public profile. But you know, the pandemic's also shined a spotlight on some of the gaps in our industry and some of the neglect that's happened in Canada over time, you know, when we look at gaps in bio manufacturing and supply chains, and our role in global supply chains, you know, this has been an ongoing concern for those of us in the industry. And of course, the pandemic has really brought this out into the forefront. 

 

I'd say the other thing that's really important in a Canadian context is that oftentimes the pharma industry is part of a dialogue around cost and affordability, and not value. And what we've seen now is that it has to start to shift because the economic impacts of shutting down our economy for two years has been greater than any impact of actually investing in an ongoing basis into the life sciences sector. So we're hoping that that's going to change the views in terms of our value proposition. 

 

PB:

 

Okay, so I heard three things there that there are some views are on the rise, pharma's becoming a little more retail kitchen table conversation, we have some gaps, and still a bit of negativity on cost. But let's take the three of those. 

 

If I think about sort of, we’ll pressure test the idea that views of pharma are on the rise. So the public is seeing pharma, the value of pharma, and vaccines of making a difference solving the pandemic. So why do you think we still see governments catering to an anti-vaccine sentiment?

 

JF:

 

I think the simple answer to that, Peter, is that it's political demographics, right. I mean, I'll give you an example. And again, this is broad generalizations. But you know, that's the way political parties have the view, their basis, and the electorate is sort of in broad strokes. 

 

So in Ontario, for example, you know, you can talk about rural Ontario, and the political leanings that are happening there. Well, if you look at that through a pandemic lens, a pandemic has impacted rural communities and urban communities in very different ways. And they have very different views on vaccinations. And oftentimes that gets related back to, you know, the political demographics. So I think for that reason, we're seeing some political parties catering a little bit more to the anti-vaccine sentiment, I think there's legitimate concerns about privacy, about constitutional rights, things of that nature. 

 

But at the end of the day, I always approach it through a science and public health perspective. Vaccines are great. They're what are going to get us out of this. And so I think all political parties know this. But what you're seeing paying lip service to certain segments, it's part politics. And unfortunately, it's one of the things that we have to live with.

 

PB:

 

You're listening to Jason Field, CEO of Life Sciences Ontario on the NPC Podcast. 

 

So it's not a science lead. Okay. So let's talk about that science lead, then. So I know some pharma companies are coming out with vaccine mandates for their staff, right? We're seeing it in the US, certainly. And now we're seeing the Canadian federal government trying to follow suit. 

 

What do you think the views of the Canadian pharma companies are on this topic? I mean, will the Canadian industry walk the talk?

 

JF:

 

I mean, I can't speak for individual companies. But what I can say is that it's difficult for any business really, whether the pharmaceutical companies or not, I mean, pharmaceutical companies, I think more so because they're science-based organizations, they're producing these vaccines, of course they want people to be vaccinated and safe. But they also have to be conscious that they're not violating, you know, any constitutional rights or privacy issues. And the fact of the matter is, we don't have any guidance from government, as any level really, on mandating these things for businesses or manufacturers, or criteria around industries of high risk. 

 

We're starting to see some of that again with the example of the federal government and transportation industries. But most businesses are really left to make up their own mind and their own rules. And that can create all sorts of legal implications. So I understand the difficulty for any business to navigate this. But my view is that pharma industry is a science-based industry. I know they're going to want to make the best scientific decision for their employees for their safety, but they're going to have to navigate just like any other business.

 

PB:

 

Okay, let's come to those two other areas then you talked about in terms of gaps. So with these good vibes, let's take it there's good vibes for pharma that's happening out there, but what changes might we see coming out of the pandemic in other areas outside of vaccines?

 

JF:

 

Well, there's actually some really good news. I mean, we're seeing investments into the industry right now. Right? I mean, in the last federal budget, we saw some pretty major investments in biomanufacturing. And since then, we've seen additional ones, the latest one being an announcement that Moderna is setting up a biomanufacturing facility here in Canada. So these are all good news stories. 

 

I think, though, what our concern was is it's not just about biomanufacturing and domestic capacity for biomanufacturing. It's how do we take the great science we have here in Canada, and translate that into successful, commercially successful companies and all the benefits that it can bring into Canada? What's that clear pathway, and that really requires a life sciences strategy. 

 

This is something we've been asking for for a long time and the federal government has very recently announced in biomanufacturing and life sciences strategy. It's not just about biomanufacturing any longer. And so from that view, we really feel that our voice was heard there. And in that strategy, they certainly had elements such as an all of government approach, which we think is really important to developing a national strategy for Life Sciences. So, we're seeing a lot of good indicators. But it still needs to, you know, of course, be implemented in a meaningful way. So, we're optimistic about these advances, but we're watching them very carefully.

 

PB:

 

So you talked about budgets that may trigger the question that because I understood LSO made a pre budget submission to the federal government. So what were your key recommendations in that?

 

JF:

 

Well, our first one was to develop an implemented Life Sciences strategy, which they very recently announced. And again, we're very happy to see that element reflected there. You know, prior to that budget submission, we had a group of 19 organizations across Canada, other provincial industry associations, chambers of commerce, national associations, that all wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau asking for this strategy. So we were really pleased to see that implemented. 

 

And then the second thing that we asked for in our budget submission was really around the PMPRB, or the Patented Medicine Pricing Review Board, which we were basically asking those new regulations to be re-examined to ensure they're not inhibiting access to medicines for Canadians, and also not being a blocker to our global competitiveness in terms of barrier to investing into Canada.

 

PB:

 

You're listening to the NPC Podcast. I'm Peter Brenders, your host. 

 

So you hit the hot button there on the PMPRB. And I've been reading a few opinion pieces along the lines of the court ruling actually, that came out there that basically said the PMPRB is lost its way or greatly overextended itself and beyond its mandate. So what do you think the future the PMPRB, if any, should actually look like?

 

JF:

 

Well, I mean, I think the conversation has definitely shifted from regulatory reforms to reforming the regulator. And I think rightly so, so this court case is just the latest indicator of that. But go back, there was actually a Freedom of Information document that came out of the PMPRB communications plan, where they had targeted patient groups and industry associations, specifically by name and saying that they needed to be discredited. Essentially, this was an advocacy communications document. 

 

Now, PMPRB is supposed to be an unbiased, impartial regulator. This is not the behaviour of an unbiased impartial regulator, by any stretch of the imagination. So there's real concerns around the leadership of this organization and the culture as a regulator. So I think that the Government of Canada really needs to look closely at that. I know that the Minister of Health actually has within her mandate to institute a third-party body to review the board and board selections. And I think that that needs to be exercised immediately. 

 

So it's more about the regulator itself, and the organization of PMPRB, than the regulation changes itself, because even if those are addressed, it doesn't address the culture and behavior that is taking place. And as a former public servant, that's where I have the biggest concerns.

 

PB:

 

So it sends a real underlying problem with the foundation, a lot of this stuff is built on. I mean, I recall the federal government was also talking about a new Canada Health Agency, and they talk about national pharmacare. Is this all going to be linked some way? And how does the industry feel about this?

 

JF:

 

Yeah, I mean, I don't think it was any secret PMPRB was a precursor to national pharmacare. I think everyone in the industry kind of knew that there's no way that the federal government even before the pandemic could really afford a national pharmacare program, at least not in the way that was being proposed. So PMPRB was sort of meant as a tool of affordability and linked very strongly to a national pharmacare program. 

 

But the landscape has shifted so dramatically since that time we've been through a global pandemic, our economy has been essentially shut down for two years, governments have massive deficits, they really need to rethink their approach to what a national pharmacare program looks like. And it's got to be less about building political legacies, and more about what's going to have the most impact for Canadians. 

 

Canadians, generally speaking, have great coverage. There's lots of programs, some of them are a little disconnected. We need to ensure that Canadians that can access programs are accessing them appropriately. And those few that don't have coverage that's focused on them. So it's more of a fill the gaps approach that I think is more needed on national pharmacare. 

 

As far as the Canada Health Agency, I actually think this could be a really good thing, if done correctly. What we don't want to see is another layer of government bureaucracy that, you know, delays medicines from reaching patients. We have enough of that, there's layer upon layer of health technology assessment. So pricing negotiations of regulatory approvals. You know, we don't want to make any shortcuts, we want to always ensure that we're getting value for dollar, we're getting safe and effective products. But at the same time, we don't want unnecessary duplication. 

 

So if the Canada Health Agency actually brings some of these different groups together under one umbrella and finds efficiencies and coordinate with provinces, so they can eliminate multiple levels of duplication, I think it could be really effective. But that still remains to be seen if they're actually going to be able to do that.

 

PB:

 

Well, I think that's a setup then for predictions, right? So time for some predictions. Jason, I mean, we're right at the start in of a federal election when all things are possible. So two questions, who's gonna win? And what will this mean for pharma in Canada?

 

JF:

 

Well, if I had to guess right now, and again, it's early in the election cycle, so anything can happen. I will say that, and when I say anything, anything that could dramatically change the landscape. But as things sit right now, I think we're gonna see another liberal minority if I was having to guess, but I was gonna give an award right now, it's the best performance in the election very early on. And we needed Jagmeet Singh, calling out the Prime Minister even before the election about calling an election during the pandemic. You know, very recently, you know, challenging the Prime Minister on the timing for initiating these mandatory vaccinations and the passports etc. He's been very active and very prominent, I think, on the right side, generally, speaking of Canadians mindsets. That said, in Quebec it's going to be a strong battleground, the Bloc had a great showing, and I think they're going to be strong as well. And so combined, the NDP and the Bloc could be the spoilers, I think, for a liberal majority. 

 

And the conservatives, as you pointed out earlier on part of the political demographics, I think that their messaging might be a little bit too focused on their base and not the broader sentiment with Canadians. So they have some ground to make up there. So all of that combined, I'm going to predict a liberal minority. 

 

What does that mean for Life Sciences thing? Probably pretty much what we're seeing right now. So a continuation of that. That said, I think that any party that gets into power has to recognize how important this sector is for our health going forward, as well as our economic security going forward. So any party that gets and needs to have life science and strategy in place, and execute on it.

 

PB:

 

Well, there you have it, words from the oracle himself. We've been speaking with Jason Fields, CEO of Life Sciences Ontario on the NPC Podcast. 

 

Thank you for listening.

 

MS:

 

Thanks to Jason and Peter. There's a lot more about LSO on their website at lifesciencesontario.ca. There are no puns there. However, you need to see Jonathan Goodman, if that's what you're after. 

 

If you have follow up questions or comments about today's conversation, message us via Twitter @2021NPC. You can also send email to health@chronicle.org or phone our comment line at 647-873-6995. We might use your voice on our next program. 

 

If you like today's podcast, please share it with your colleagues. Find it at Apple iTunes, Google podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. 

 

The NPC Podcast is presented in cooperation with Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner. Check them out at www.impres.com

 

I'm Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies. The Podcast Producer is Jeremy Visser, Jeremy's assisted by Aria Empakeris. The announcer was Leona Sprache-Sie. The musical theme is performed with whimsy by the NPC Podcast Orchestra under the direction of Maestra Clotilde Millbrook. 

 

We'll talk again next Wednesday. Until then, stay safe.