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Tens of thousands of Canadians have joined Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in calling for a medical research and development (R&D) system driven by public health needs, rather than private profits.

Together, we are demanding that publicly funded health innovations – from vaccines to rapid tests to treatments – be made affordable and accessible to those who need them most. Canada can lead the way, simply by seeking a better return on the money it is already investing.

Canada should help prioritize lives over profits, by insisting that any federal funding or licensing agreements for new health technologies come with conditions that serve public health, not commercial interests.

With your support, we are pushing to make that happen.

Read the press release: MSF calls on Canada to ensure medicines developed with public funds are affordable and accessible

Read MSF Canada's submission on COVID-19 vaccines to Canada's House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade

Read MSF Canada's opening words on the TRIPS Waiver and domestic vaccine production to the Standing Committee on International Trade

Read MSF Canada's statement on Utilizing TRIPS flexibilities and Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) for COVID-19

Read MSF Canada's submission to Canada's House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance's Pre-Budget Consultation in Advance of 2021 Budget

Read MSF Canada's statement to Canada's House of Commons Standing Committee on Afghanistan

Read MSF Canada's statement to House of Commons  Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development Study on Vaccine Equity and Intellectual Property Rights

How is the current system failing public health?

For decades, MSF has seen first-hand how even deadly diseases that kill thousands of people every year are largely ignored by the global pharmaceutical industry, simply because they only affect patients in low-income countries. We have also seen that many of the lifesaving medicines that do get made are priced out of reach of those who need them.

Right now, the innovations needed to address the world’s most pressing health concerns, from COVID-19 to a wide range of neglected diseases, are only being developed according to their commercial potential, rather than public health needs.

Private companies have no incentive to address those health needs other than to generate profits, even in the midst of a global pandemic. This has been made clear by the rollout of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines, which has left many low-income countries without the doses they need to vaccinate even the most vulnerable members of their populations. Pharmaceutical companies are instead selling vaccines at undisclosed prices directly to wealthier governments – in many cases, the same governments who helped develop those vaccines in the first place through billions of dollars in public funding.

Canada can change the system and improve public health

Every year, Canada’s government invests millions of dollars in health innovation, whether through the government’s own labs or in support of Canada’s medical R&D sector. In 2020, Canada’s government spent more than $1 billion on research related to COVID-19 alone. This level of public investment makes possible the creation of new health technologies guided by public health needs rather than profit motives.

The problem is that Canada currently does nothing to ensure these investments of public funds result in publicly accessible outcomes. In fact, the medical innovations that Canada funds are most often licensed or simply sold off to private companies — with no strings attached.

That means that even when Canada has shouldered the risk and financial burden of developing new medicines or other health products, they still become the intellectual property of private companies, which are free to charge prices they see fit, even for medicines that can make the difference between life and death.

Public funding for essential medicines should prioritize saving lives over maximizing profits

Globally, we have already seen how COVID-19 vaccines, despite being developed with large amounts of government money, are being sold back to those governments at prices set by the pharmaceutical companies — who have not committed to sharing their products equitably, even when doing so will help end the global pandemic.

In Canada, we have seen at least one publicly funded essential medicine — an urgently needed Ebola vaccine — sold off with no conditions, only to sit on shelves, even as the disease it was needed for claimed thousands of lives.

This is not only terrible for global public health, but also simply a bad return on investment. Canada is funding urgently needed medical innovations that can save lives and fill critical gaps in public health, and yet we are leaving it to the private sector to dictate who can access these technologies and at what price – or whether they will ever be made available for use at all.

Read more: Public funds and private failure - how Canada’s Ebola vaccine could have saved more lives

What is MSF calling for?

MSF and its supporters are demanding Canada attach conditions to the funding it provides for medical R&D, requiring recipients to ensure medicines and vaccines developed with public funds will be affordable, available and accessible to those who need them most.

Without immediate action to attach such safeguards, the Canadian government risks spending billions to develop new medicines that will simply be sold to private pharmaceutical companies and priced out of reach of patients and health systems — including Canada’s.

“It’s unacceptable that potentially lifesaving medicines or vaccines developed with Canadian public funds – provided by Canadian taxpayers – could be priced out of reach of those who need them, in Canada or around the world,” says Dr. Jason Nickerson, MSF’s Humanitarian Affairs Advisor. “Public funds should deliver public goods. Any institution or organization receiving public funds should be required to ensure that any medicines, vaccines and other health technologies developed with the support of Canadians be made affordable and accessible to everyone who needs them.”

Taking action

Last fall, MSF delivered a petition with more than 91,000 signatures to Canada’s Minister of Health, the Hon. Patty Hajdu, calling on the Canadian government to take immediate steps to ensure fair, affordable and equitable access to any medicines, vaccines or other health technologies developed with Canadian public funds, including for any innovations developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canadian leaders have heard the message

Since delivering the petition, MSF has been invited to meet with senior government officials and with Members of Parliament from across Canada’s political spectrum, to explain the urgency of making these changes and to provide guidance on how they can be achieved.

We have also facilitated high-level engagement between government policy specialists and experts from various non-profit drug developers — including M4K Pharma, the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership, and the MSF-affiliated Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative — to share learning opportunities from these organizations’ experiences with researching and developing essential medicines outside of the traditional commercial pharmaceutical model.

But despite the straightforward nature of our call for change, and the positive reception this message has had so far among key stakeholders, changes have not yet happened.

That’s why we are exploring next steps to ensure this becomes a priority for Canada’s government. These will potentially include following up from last fall’s MSF petition with an official House of Commons petition, which, once certified, must be presented to Canada’s House of Commons, and requires a formal government response.

What can you do?

More than 91,000 Canadians have already joined us in telling Canada’s government that public health should be prioritized over private profits — and have helped this message reach the decision makers in Canada who most need to hear it.

Now, we need to ensure that this momentum continues, and to hold Canada’s leaders responsible for placing lives over profits when it comes to the development of new and essential medicines.

Please share this message with friends, families and colleagues, and on social media using #livesoverprofits, to remind Canadians and people around the world that lifesaving vaccines, diagnostics and treatments should be public goods and not private intellectual property, especially when developed with public money.

Learn more: MSF, R&D and access to medicines