Dr. Mona Nemer
Chief Science Advisor of Canada
Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU)
February 25, 2021
Check against delivery
Good morning. Thank you, Madame Chair and committee members, for the opportunity to exchange with you today.
Since my last appearance before this committee in December 2017, I have fulfilled my first mandate and was subsequently reappointed for a two-year term in September 2020.
In the interest of time, I will not go into the details of my mandate, but as the science advisor to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, I will say that the past year has been largely devoted to advice related to the Covid-19 health crisis. Of course, a pandemic is an extremely complex situation with numerous facets; it is all the more challenging when it’s due to a new virus about which we know very little.
Which is why, in order to help inform my advice, I established a multidisciplinary scientific advisory group early on.
We focused on areas ranging from Covid-19 diagnostics and research needs to aerosol transmission, infection in children and long-term care settings.
Researchers were mobilized and willing to generously share their findings and advice. As a result, science has guided decision-making in real time like I have never seen before.
The Covid-19 Expert Panel, made up of distinguished researchers and practitioners in infectious disease, in disease modeling and the behavioural sciences from across the country, held its first meeting on March 10. It has met since more than 40 times.
Panel members also participated in several targeted taskforces to which additional experts contributed. This ensured a coordinated and integrated science advice mechanism. Throughout, an impressive number of scientists and health practitioners have generously contributed their time and expertise for the service of their country.
My office also helped set up the CanCOVID network to further stimulate Covid research and partnerships. The network boastsover 3000 members across the country and has been very successful in fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration and innovation.
In addition to domestic outreach, I have been in regular communication with my international counterparts. We shared information on disease spread and containment, knowledge gaps, research activities and priorities, as well as clinical studies. This kept us all up to date on the latest developments worldwide.
Early in the pandemic, several clinical studies aimed at treating or preventing Covid-19 and its complications using existing drugs got underway, but the results were mostly disappointing.
Attention increasingly focused on vaccine development for disease prevention.
In Canada, federal funds were allocated as early as March and April 2020 for vaccine and therapeutic developments through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Department of Innovation, Science and Industry.
Covid-19 vaccine development, manufacturing and distribution were topics I discussed extensively with my international counterparts, including those in the UK and the USA.
It became evident to me that independent expert advice on vaccine development and procurement was needed, which is why I recommended the creation of the Vaccine Task Force.
Made up of 11 members of Canada’s vaccine research community and four ex-officio members of which I am one, the task force has been instrumental in helping to identify and prioritize vaccine candidates, support domestic vaccine development and inform supply chain coordination.
I have participated in the vast majority of the task force meetings and I will say that I have always been completely satisfied with the scientific rigour that framed their deliberations.
Like so many others in Canada’s scientific community, these researchers were ready and willing to step up and contribute pro bono their time and expertise to helping fight this health crisis.
As a result, Canada now has a diverse portfolio of the leading effective vaccines from three different technologies.
I believe that Canadians have been well served by this remarkable group.
The only downside to the amazing feat of vaccines against Covid-19 is that the first of these vaccines came from outside the country.
The fact that Canada has modest human vaccine production capabilities is not news: it is a problem that has existed for nearly four decades.
As a scientist, I have spent most of my career in biopharmaceutical research, and sadly, I have witnessed the decline of our country’s therapeutic development capacity over much of that time.
It does not have to be this way.
Therapeutic development, whether vaccines or drugs, is a lengthy and complex process requiring dynamic collaboration between researchers, clinicians, governments and private sector organizations.
The rewards, as seen in this pandemic, are well worth the efforts.
Canada has exquisite assets to support a thriving biomanufacturing ecosystem.
From world-renowned scientists who continue to make critical discoveries in biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences to innovative SMEs with promising products.
But taking a discovery from the lab to the community or scaling up drug and vaccine production for human use are not trivial undertakings.
It is my hope that the health needs and science successes witnessed during this pandemic will encourage us to put in place the resources and infrastructure to take our discoveries into innovative health products, manufactured in Canada for Canadians, but also for the world.
Building our biomanufacturing capacity will not happen overnight.
But it is vital that we work towards it, and now is the time to establish the strategies and act on them.
Science gave us hope and the tools to overcome this crisis, from diagnostics to vaccines and therapeutics.
We in Canada have much to offer to fight this and future health threats.
I look forward to the extraordinary opportunities that lie ahead.