Innovation saves lives

An MSF staff prepares a vaccine in Kamrangirchar, Bangladesh. © Brian T. Scott


Without an effective medical research and development (R&D) system, we would not have the vaccines, medicines or diagnostic tools we need to prevent the spread of deadly diseases and protect human health. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has emphatically underscored this reality. Until there is a vaccine that works — along with effective medicines to treat patients and a drastically increased capacity for widespread testing — the new coronavirus will continue to claim lives, threaten livelihoods and overwhelm fragile health systems. That is why governments around the world, including Canada’s, have collectively poured billions of dollars into the search for a COVID-19 breakthrough. 

But who will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine if and when it is discovered? As Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen repeatedly while responding to health emergencies around the world, the global medical R&D system is set up not to optimize public health outcomes, but to develop products for the pharmaceutical industry. 

This has left urgent health needs such as tuberculosis, Ebola and sleeping sickness neglected because they mostly affect people in lower-resourced countries and therefore present little opportunity for profit. It also means that even widely needed medicines — such as vaccines for pneumonia or measles — are often accessible and affordable only to people who live in wealthier places with well-funded health systems. 

These deadly gaps do not need to exist. A considerable portion of global medical R&D is carried out not by private companies by themselves, but with public funds — in Canada alone, researchers have used government money to support the discovery of an Ebola vaccine, insulin, the cardiac pacemaker and more. When such medical breakthroughs are developed with public funds rather than private capital, their return on investment should to be measured in public health outcomes rather than profitability. 

And yet, even when the public provides the funding for critical medical innovation, there is no guarantee they will benefit. In Canada, there are no safeguards attached to government spending on health R&D requiring that the outcomes be affordable or accessible for public health needs, whether in Canada or around the world. 

The results of most publicly funded medical R&D end up being sold to private companies, who are under no obligation to use the resulting intellectual property for any purpose beyond profit. The Ebola vaccine, for example, was discovered nearly two decades ago at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. It was sold to a small, private U.S. company who did nothing with it other than resell it at a significant profit — at the very moment when thousands of people in West Africa were dying from a massive Ebola outbreak beginning in 2014. 

This is unacceptable. Medicines, vaccines and diagnostic tools developed with public funds should be accessible and affordable to the people and the public health systems that need them most. 


Every day, MSF teams around the world provide care to patients who face life-threatening illnesses or prolonged suffering that can easily be prevented, simply because neither they nor their governments can afford the medicines they need. 

This can change, and Canada can lead the way by taking a very simple first step. By attaching straightforward conditions to any government funding for medical R&D, Canada can demand that medical innovations developed with public money are safeguarded for public use and are made affordable and accessible to those who need them most. 

COVID-19 has made clear we are all dependent on an effective medical R&D system to protect our lives, our health and our well-being. Access to that protection should not be sold to the highest bidder. 


Canadians may be shocked to learn that although their government commits billions of dollars to health R&D each year, it currently has a no-strings-attached approach. This means there are no policies in place to ensure medicines developed with public funds will be affordable or accessible to patients – in Canada or anywhere else in the world that needs them.

Moreover, Canadians may be equally surprised to learn that commercialization continues to be an objective of our health research funding agencies, without any safeguards to ensure that commercialization delivers affordable and accessible drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other health technologies.

It does not have to be this way. By identifying priorities for health research and development, and implementing common-sense safeguards requiring that medicines and other health technologies developed with public funds be made available and affordable to patients in Canada and elsewhere, the Canadian government will have a significant impact on patients’ lives and can help alleviate suffering, both in Canada and around the world.

Everyone should have access to lifesaving treatment and care. © MSF

That’s why Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has launched a petition demanding that Canada’s Minister of Health make one simple policy change:

“Canada’s medical research and development funding system should include safeguards requiring that any medicines, vaccines and any other health innovations discovered or developed with Canadian public funds be made affordable, accessible and available for everyone that needs them – free of patents, monopolies and high prices.”

Sign our petition today. Our goal is to deliver 30,000 signatures to Canada’s Health Minister, Patty Hajdu, before the launch of the fall parliamentary session on Sept. 21, 2020.

By signing our petition, you will help send a clear message to the Canadian government that urgently needed medicines must be available to those who need them most – including to Canadians who paid to develop them.

Visit to learn more and sign our petition today.