Canada’s drug review and reimbursement systems are already onerous. It can take from two to five years for some drugs to get to patients. The speed with which we have introduced COVID vaccines shows our government can do much better.
One of the hard lessons Canadians – and Canadian governments – have learned during this pandemic is how difficult it is to wait to get access to a new therapy that can save your life. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that far too many Canadian patients learned long ago.
Canada lags badly behind other countries in COVID-19 vaccination, including other G7 countries except Japan. The federal government, newly awakened to the problem of delayed access to new therapies (in this case, a vaccine), has launched an admirable effort to shorten the wait for Canadians. It has aggressively pursued vaccine supply contracts with multiple companies, negotiated faster delivery where possible, and begun discussions with pharmaceutical companies about producing new vaccines here in Canada.
It seems the federal government now understands that Canadians shouldn’t have to wait longer than people living in other countries for new therapies. Unfortunately, this newfound realization only extends to vaccines for pandemics, not for other medicines and therapies that are equally important to millions of people.
In fact, at the same time the government is working to secure commitments from pharmaceutical companies to produce vaccines in Canada it is also pursuing regulatory and policy reforms that will slow access to other equally important life-saving therapies for Canadian patients.
Canada’s drug review and reimbursement systems are already onerous, duplicative and inadequate. It can take from two to five years for some drugs to get to patients and even longer for precision medicines and medicines for rare diseases. Right now, only 60 per cent of treatments for rare disorders make it into Canada and most get approved up to six years later than in the United States and Europe. Yet the federal government has now proposed changes to the way the price of new patented medicines is regulated that will result in fewer clinical trials in Canada and even longer delays for Canadian patients to get life-changing and life-saving drugs.
The federal government has dismissed patients’ concerns by insisting these changes will not create barriers to access to new medicines, but the facts do not support this claim.
Canadians living with cystic fibrosis have died waiting for access to a new therapy that could have saved their lives but which is still unavailable in Canada because the manufacturer delayed bringing the drug here due to the proposed regulatory changes. There are other patients living with other diseases across the country who are struggling to access therapies already available in other countries.
Despite its claims to the contrary, the federal government knows the proposed changes will delay access to new therapies, which is why it exempted COVID vaccines and treatments from its new regulatory regime. By doing so, it has implicitly acknowledged the proposed changes will delay access to new medicines for millions of Canadians battling other diseases.
Over the next several months, all Canadians who want a vaccine to protect themselves against COVID-19 will be able to receive one, thanks to the efforts of our federal and provincial governments. We should be thankful for that. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Canadians are also waiting for access to new therapies that are just as important as the vaccine. Unlike the wait for vaccines – which will last only several weeks or months – those patients may wait years longer than people in other countries. Some will die waiting.
The pandemic has brought the problem of delayed access to new therapies to life for our political leaders in a tangible and stark way. They know that any unreasonable or avoidable delays in accessing a vaccine could cost them their political future. We can only hope they understand that it is not just vaccines that people are waiting for. Canadians deserve quick and fair access to all new therapies, not just when it comes to COVID-19. The lives of millions of Canadians depend on it.
Kelly Grover is President and CEO of Cystic Fibrosis Canada. She wrote this on behalf of:
• ALS Society of Canada
• Canadian Cancer Survivor Network
• Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association
• Coalition Priorité Cancer au Québec
• Colorectal Cancer Canada
• Fighting Blindness Canada
• Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada
• Lung Health Foundation
• Ovarian Cancer Canada
• PROCURE – The Force Against Prostate Cancer
• Québec Breast Cancer Foundation
• Canadian Association of PNH Patients