With the recent H1N1 flu pandemic in mind, Canadian health officials have launched a review of the country's vaccination strategy, with an eye on moving beyond a single supplier for pandemic vaccines.
The contract with GlaxoSmithKline Inc., the company with a Canadian flu vaccine plant in Ste.-Foy, Que., became a source of controversy during the height of the pandemic virus as serious issues arose with supply and delivery of the vaccine. The federal government's 10-year contract with GSK, worth about $300-million, will expire next year, and it appears that officials plan to change the vaccine supply system.
Paul Lucas, GSK's president and CEO, defended his company's actions in an interview Thursday. But he also indicated that the federal government would be wise in contracting a back-up manufacturing company in the event of another pandemic.
Mr. Lucas answered some questions, before he led a media tour of GSK's Mississauga facility.
There were hiccups during the rollout of the H1N1 vaccine. The federal government kept saying GSK promised certain amounts at fixed periods of time, but the company was not delivering on schedule. What happened there?
The bottom line was there was a little bit of a misalignment between what was expected and what was realistic. It took us a while to clarify for people what's the actual process of getting the vaccine out the door. It's not like filling Coca-Cola. You just don't fill the bottle, it comes out at the end of the line and you shoot it out the door. We have a very strict quality-assurance process once it comes off the line. We had a couple of glitches in the manufacturing process initially because we had never made this before. Initially, the number of doses that we could actually get off the line and get through quality-control weren't what we had wanted to get. We resolved that in a couple of weeks, and then we started flowing through fairly efficiently.
Was the company overambitious in its initial promises?
I don't think we were overambitious. In fact we delivered [the vaccine]earlier than planned and the government actually launched the program earlier than planned. To be fair, a number of provinces didn't stick with the plan. If you recall, because the vaccine wasn't going to roll out to all 33 million Canadians overnight, they had to go with a priority list. Some of the provinces didn't follow that list. And then [13-year-old Evan Frustaglio]died and the demand shot up and then that just threw everything completely out of control.
What would you do differently the next time around?
The bottleneck in production is actually the filling. It's not making the soup; it's getting it into the vial. That's really the bottleneck, because we were only able to fill based on the capacity of the plant. If we could fill more doses per week, then we could get more out the door quickly. That's the plan. If we were to get the contract, we would want to be able to fill more doses more quickly.
How confident are you of getting a new contract?
We're in the process now, and it's really hard to say where that's going to go. We've shown that we did a pretty good job through all of this, and I continue to say that Canada was the first country to have enough doses for all of its population, and we had that by the end of the year. The strategy worked. But we can always do better. That's the bottom line of the whole pandemic. The problem with a pandemic is you're practising in the situation.
One of the criticisms levelled at the federal government is that it went with only one vaccine manufacture and that's why Canada ran into problems. Do you think that's fair?
We did supply more than any other manufacturer in the world, and delivered it on a better time scale. So the actual results would say we did really well in Canada with one supplier, a domestic supplier, where we had priority access. Should there be an insurance policy of some sort? I wouldn't argue against that. I think when you're dealing with issues like H1N1 or any other crisis, it's always good to have a backup plan.
This interview has been edited and condensed.