OPINION: B.C.’s critical role in building a healthy recovery

The global effort to develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccinations and therapeutics offer fresh hope after a difficult year. As we reflect, it’s a good time to recognize the impact that B.C.’s life-sciences sector is having here at home and around the world, and its place in planning for our province’s economic recovery.

Many British Columbians are only now hearing of the exciting and impressive role that local companies and researchers are playing in the development of life-saving vaccines, treatments and testing in the fight against COVID-19. Even less understood is the sector’s economic impact today, and its potential impact for decades to come as a significant health-sciences innovation cluster.

B.C. is home to a vibrant and world-renowned life-sciences community, comprised of nearly 2,000 companies employing roughly 20,000 people. From groundbreaking cancer care to COVID-19, the breadth of treatments and technologies being advanced by B.C.’s homegrown researchers, academic partners and entrepreneurs is staggering. The sector offers tremendous potential for exponential growth and foundational support for B.C.’s economic recovery, and will continue to deliver innovation, attract investment and create high-paying jobs under the right conditions.

So how do we ensure that critical talent and these remarkable companies continue to thrive in B.C., and deliver the personal health and economic benefits to British Columbians?

In late 2020, leaders from B.C.’s life-sciences community convened to discuss how the sector could help support the province’s economic recovery efforts in ways that go beyond the life-saving treatments and vaccines currently making headlines. They determined that in order for the sector to reach its full potential as a priority innovation cluster, as identified by the B.C. government, greater co-ordination and collaboration among researchers, global industry, academia and government would be required. It was agreed that nurturing these partnerships will help local life-science firms grow and create well-paying jobs as they develop cutting-edge treatments for use in B.C. and around the world.

As we have already seen, seeds planted to sow these critical partnerships bear fruit. Vancouver-based AbCellera partnered with Lilly in March 2020 to co-develop antibody products for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.

In November, Lilly announced it had signed a deal with the Government of Canada to supply their life-saving therapeutic to Canadians. Distribution planning is now underway, with additional doses to be supplied monthly based on Canada’s medical needs and the treatment’s availability. What remains is provincial approval for British Columbians to begin accessing this made-in-B.C. innovative treatment.

Another example is the delivery system for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which was developed by Vancouver-based Acuitas Therapeutics as part of the world’s first approved vaccine. Acuitas, the world leader in lipid nanoparticles research and development, originated a delivery system for the mRNA vaccine, critical to its performance efficacy.

Input from academia and post-secondary institutions will also be important, especially in developing the talent and skills needed to do the challenging work that lies ahead for life sciences. The announcement of a new medical school at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus is one example of how B.C. is moving forward on these efforts.

Building on the relationships and progress made within the Cascadia Innovation Corridor to expand our economic connections, the B.C. government has identified the life-sciences sector as a priority. We very much look forward to working with Premier John Horgan, the Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training, and B.C.’s innovation commissioner to lead and attract investment focused on life-sciences innovation through provincial and federal innovation cluster initiatives.

By supporting clear actions such as the development of innovation precincts or clusters, we can grow our life-sciences industry to be ready for the next pandemic, treat rare and life-altering diseases and help secure B.C.’s economic prosperity. We can’t let this moment pass in a changing and innovative world, as we are at a critical inflection point where we need to plan, secure and commit to our future, for generations to come.

Greg D’Avignon is President and CEO of the Business Council of B.C. and Wendy Hurlburt is President and CEO of LifeSciences B.C.

As published in Vancouver Sun.