Philip Morris and the Government of Canada collaborate on COVID-19 vaccine development

Joanna Cohen and Simon Chapman

Does the control of one pandemic justify the promotion of another?

The news of a new COVID-19 vaccine collaboration between Philip Morris International and the Government of Canada has set off alarm bells in the tobacco control community.

The vaccine developer at the middle of the controversy—Quebec-based Medicago Inc.—is owned by two major foreign shareholders including Philip Morris Investments (PMI) and Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma. PMI owns one-third of Medicago and its former vice-president of regulatory affairs is the President and CEO of the vaccine developer. PMI has reported investing an undisclosed sum in the development of the new vaccine.

The Canadian Prime Minister was reluctant to name PMI as one of the investment partners in his October 23 news release announcing the government’s US$130 million investment in the Medicago vaccine. However PMI did not let its involvement go unnoticed and issued its own global news release the very next day, with CEO André Calantzopoulos declaring “Better outcomes can be achieved when governments and companies join efforts to promote shared objectives for the greater good.”

The potential development of a COVID-19 vaccine could very well represent one of the most successful corporate public relations strategies ever mounted by a tobacco company. PMI’s involvement with Medicago is no secret; it was profiled in a communique issued by the tobacco giant last March and it is disclosed in corporate regulatory filings. The involvement of the Government of Canada in this venture with a tobacco company is extremely disturbing.

The Canadian government should be investing in the development of a corona virus vaccine given the colossal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the government has over 50 vaccine candidates to choose from globally—including several in Canada—so there is no lack of “clean” investment options.

By collaborating with Philip Morris on its own vaccine candidate, the Government of Canada is demonstrating complete disregard for its treaty obligations under the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control. Moreover, the government appears to be turning a blind eye to the tobacco industry and the pandemic of eight million deaths annually that it is fueling.

The many transgressions of tobacco companies—including PMI—such as the development and promotion of so-called “light and mild” cigarettes are very well documented in legal filings by 12 subnational Canadian governments representing $500 billion in total claims for health care costs resulting from alleged industry deception and negligence. The Canadian federal government is well aware of these transgressions as it has been the direct target of numerous industry campaigns to derail, dilute and delay effective tobacco control measures.

The Government of Canada was a strong supporter and early adopter of the Framework Convention. The treaty frowns on government partnerships and collaborations with tobacco companies. At the Eighth Conference of the Parties in October 2018, the Canadian government delegation championed a decision urging all 182 participating nations to accelerate the implementation of Article 5.3 of the FCTC to limit government interactions with tobacco companies. Ironically, the Canadian government has yet to implement its own cross-government guidelines for Article 5.3 for all governing bodies within its jurisdiction. The absence of strong guidelines likely facilitated the recent PMI collaboration.

The Canadian government needs to live by its words and its own advice delivered to 182 nations by adopting strong cross-government guidelines for Article 5.3 to avoid a similar controversy in the future. Based on the news release issued by the Prime Minister, it appears that the Canadian government may be able to walk away from the controversial contract since final approval from Health Canada is required for the vaccine.

We hope that good judgement will prevail and the Canadian government will find another worthy and clean vaccine to invest in that is not tied to the tobacco industry.

Does the control of one pandemic justify the promotion of another? By collaborating with Philip Morris on the development a COVID-19 vaccine, it appears that the Canadian government believes that it does.

Joanna Cohen is the Director of the Institute for Global Tobacco Control and the Bloomberg Professor of Disease Prevention in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  She is supported by grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the National Institutes of Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Simon Chapman is Emeritus Professor in the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

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