As we watch the latest COVID-19 variant fade in the rearview mirror toward a hopeful endemic state, it is time, once again, to take stock and evaluate the best path toward economic recovery and a thriving future for British Columbians.
One thing is abundantly clear — B.C.’s burgeoning life sciences sector helped us weather this crisis, and now, it is the opportunity we need to improve our collective personal and economic health going forward.
Health innovation is expected to be one of the greatest drivers of prosperity over the next century. There is a global race underway to determine who will reap the benefits of this fast-growing sector, from job creation and economic growth to better health and stronger communities.
B.C. has many of the ingredients needed to become a leading global hub for bio-innovation. One has to only look at the remarkable contributions UBC researchers and B.C. biotech companies made toward COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, not to mention decades of excellence in developing solutions for a range of diseases, from cancer to HIV to Type-1 diabetes.
B.C. is home to Canada’s fastest growing life sciences sector, underpinned by cutting-edge research at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and its affiliated health research institutes, including B.C. Cancer Research. Collaborations among world leaders in genomics, precision medicine, digital health and biomedical innovation are taking place right here in British Columbia. These teams are generating lifesaving discoveries and helping us prevent, treat and cure a wider range of disease than we ever thought possible.
The result: This thriving research ecosystem is giving way to growing and successful companies spun out of university research and led by university researchers and graduates. These companies are rapidly commercializing health solutions that benefit patients globally and the economy locally.
Now, we have a tremendous opportunity to build on these strengths to position B.C. and Canada as global leaders in bio-innovation. To bring this vision to life, we must act. And it’s critical we work together.
Academia, governments, regulators and businesses need to collaborate to accelerate how we take discoveries from the lab into clinical practice. We need to support the success of researchers, clinicians, start-ups and existing businesses like STEMCELL Technologies and AbCellera, to name but a few. We also need to create a welcoming environment to attract new life sciences companies into the province who bring with them talent, innovations and investment that will build our momentum in this sector.
There are gaps keeping us from reaching our full potential. Too often, lifesaving innovations born in B.C. get frustratingly shelved, delayed or bought and moved out of province. As a result, we buy back these products or services at higher costs, losing the economic and innovative benefits here at home.
The sad reality is the regulatory and decision process in Canada takes too long. We must approach this sector with the same degree of urgency as other jurisdictions, with the aim of becoming synonymous with thriving, well-established biomedical hubs in London, Boston and Silicon Valley. We can build on our strengths and adapt our processes to ensure we do not lose ground to others in this space.
We need to rethink and streamline regulatory processes and supports to enable the effective, timely and efficient translation of biomedical innovations. This is not to say the current system should be dismantled. To the contrary, regulatory processes can ensure safe and effective outcomes, which is essential to gaining public trust for any new drug or treatment. We need to find ways to cut costs and complexities, not cut corners.
UBC Faculty of Medicine and other researchers are responsible for remarkable medical and scientific discoveries. The key is that they’re working together with partners across the entire health ecosystem, supported by technologies, to bring these innovations to clinical settings and patients sooner. This has saved lives and is improving the wellbeing of British Columbians and our economy.
The pandemic has shown what is possible when we act in collaboration, at speed and with common purpose. We have seen treatments and vaccines developed safely, tested thoroughly and brought to market in record time. When there has been a “need-for-speed” the regulatory process has successfully demonstrated it can be accelerated and done safely.
As we emerge from the pandemic, my concern is government and regulatory agencies will fall back into their traditional slowed pace of innovation and increased bureaucracy. We must do better for our aging population and our children’s health, but also to address the growing costs of health care and burdens on health workers, while securing our economic future.
If we don’t, the chances of B.C. rivalling the leading global biomedical centres are slim and we will continue to feed our innovations to international competitors. British Columbians will miss the opportunity to drive economic recovery and improve health outcomes.
Instead, we must seize B.C.’s bio-innovation opportunity with urgency. Together with UBC and other research clinicians and private sector health innovators, we can create lasting and positive change for our regulatory and health policy systems. We can build a healthy future and prosperous economy for all British Columbians.
As published in Pathways Magazine.