Most Canadians know that the pandemic has furloughed non-essential workers across the nation. Many are turning to the government’s CERB program for financial stability. However, a large number of Canadians that take prescription drugs were not prepared for a shortage in their medication. Canada is currently facing a potential drug shortage due to disruptions in supply chains that originate in China. With 40% of Canadians using prescription drugs, shortages can have a severe impact on the country. At the moment, treatments from asthma to mental illness are being rationed by pharmacies in an attempt to keep up stocks until the supply lines are once again functional. Some pharmacies are imposing a 30-day cap on the limited drugs to prevent people from stocking up months worth of medication, in the face of uncertainty.

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin of Queen’s University has been writing about drug shortages in North America in her blog and on her website for nearly a decade. She has long advocated for Canada to change its policies surrounding drug manufacturing in order to make these shortages less frequent. One of the causes she outlines on her website is that Canada does not produce nearly enough drugs here at home. In fact, she told the CBC that 80% of active ingredients in prescription drugs sold in North America come from China and India; this makes our supply of prescription drugs dependent on foreign countries, and in particular, on their stability. Politics in a country on the other side of the world could decide whether or not Canadian citizens have access to medications they need for their daily lives.

80% of active ingredients in prescription drugs sold in North America come from China and India; this makes our supply of prescription drugs dependent on foreign countries, and in particular, on their stability.

For now, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act has reinstated something called compulsory licensing: this is a legal procedure that allows the government to give generic drug companies the right to manufacture certain drugs that are still under patent. This gives these companies the ability to help relieve shortages of patented drugs; they pay a royalty to the patent holders and go on to produce particular drugs domestically. Thanks to the Emergency Response Act, the government doesn’t need to negotiate with drug companies to grant licensing to generic brands, which can help them act swiftly in the manufacturing of the necessary drugs.

Compulsory licensing is not new to Canada. The government's ability to waive patent protections has existed since Canada’s inception in one form or another. Canada’s 1923 Patent Act contained provisions for how a patent was to be used if it were to be upheld (these provisions mainly pertain to the patent holder using the patent in the interest of the Canadian people). The Patent Act also held specific provisions making it much easier for compulsory licensing to occur when the product is related to the production of food or medicine. In 1969 this was expanded upon, making not only the production and sale of patented medicines possible via compulsory licensing, but the import and sale of them as well. This was implemented in an attempt to reduce drug spending for Canadians, and the measure worked, saving Canadians more than $200 million a year on drug expenditures. The Supreme Court of Canada later described the move as having been done “to favour health cost savings over the protection of intellectual property.” In 1994, however, the enforcement of NAFTA enacted stricter protections for patent holders and restricted the ability of its members to discriminate based on industry. This essentially brought an end to compulsory licensing in the Canadian pharmaceutical industry.

Shortages of necessary drugs are not a new phenomenon in Canada; they existed before this pandemic and they will persist after it is gone if the emergency measures enabling compulsory licensing are not made permanent, at a minimum. These shortages happen often and they happen because the government has neither created a plan to ramp up production when we are faced with shortages under non-emergency circumstances, nor taken the proper measures to secure reliable sources for our prescription medications. A reinstatement of compulsory licensing combined with an increase of domestic production could help stabilize the Canadian drug supply long after we stop feeling the effects of the COVID-19. Hopefully this crisis can affect positive change and ensure that our rolling drug shortages are a thing of the past.