OTTAWA - Following extensive, broad-based consultations with key stakeholders and the public, the federal government has released the long-anticipated update to its Canadian Biotechnology Strategy (CBS).

The previous CBS was formulated more than 15 years ago and signified, at that time, Canada's intention to nurture a strong biotechnology industry.

To arrive at the new strategy, a Canadian Biotechnology Strategy task force organized a number of consultations across Canada and involved more than 5,000 individuals in a variety of fact-finding and report-writing activities.

Task force Executive Director Roy Atkinson told BioWorld International the CBS advances the previous version by bringing a balanced approach to developing biotechnology as an important economic engine within the context of social and ethical considerations.

A key element of the strategy is the creation of an expert, arm's-length panel to advise ministers on biotechnology issues, raise public awareness and engage Canadians in discussions on biotechnology matters. This blue-ribbon Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC), to comprise a diverse group of scientists, health professionals, consumer advocates and industry executives, will have a mandate to advise on policy directions but will not arbitrate regulatory decisions.

Panel Will Give Public A Voice

The CBAC will give Canadians an ongoing forum to voice their views and participate in an open and transparent dialogue on biotechnology issues, Atkinson added.

Members of the CBAC will be appointed by a top-level panel due to be formed in September. The selection process is scheduled to be completed by the end of 1998 so the CBAC can begin to operate early in the new year.

Members will serve on a voluntary basis, but will have the support of a small secretariat of four full-time staff officers and two support staffers. The annual operating budget of the new committee will be in the range of C$2 million to C$3 million, Atkinson estimated.

The CBAC also will work with Ottawa-based federal granting agencies, such as the Medical Research Council of Canada, the National Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

While a variety of issues were raised during the consultative process, it became clear Canada needed a more effective mechanism to involve the various federal departments and agencies across which biotechnology cuts, Atkinson said.

Under the existing framework, the National Biotechnology Advisory Committee (NBAC) is charged with advising on biotechnology issues and concerns. However, the NBAC reports directly to the Canadian industry minister, who is responsible for acting on the committee's recommendations.

Under the new strategy, CBAC will report to the Biotechnology Ministerial Coordinating Committee, a team of seven ministers whose portfolios most closely touch on biotechnology matters. Coordinated by Industry Minister John Manley, the team that will oversee the strategy includes the federal ministers responsible for industry, agriculture and agri-food, health, environment, fisheries and oceans, natural resources and international trade.

The NBAC, in fact, in its recently released “Sixth Report - Leading in the Next Millennium,“ proposed the establishment of a new national advisory council that would go beyond the NBAC's mandate and advise on socio-ethical and public perception issues as well as scientific and regulatory aspects of biotechnology.

Manley said the new strategy will ensure that biotechnology continues to enhance Canadians' quality of life in terms of health, safety, the environment and social and economic development. It also will support the responsible development, application and export of biotechnology products and services.

The strategy sets out a policy framework outlining 10 themes for concerted action over the coming months on implementing its goals in partnership with the Canadian provinces, industry, academia, consumers, environmental groups and other interested parties.

The themes identified are: public confidence, communication and awareness; R&D; regulation to protect health and the environment; biotechnology for public health advantage; intellectual property; technology commercialization; international issues; human resources; policy-relevant data collection and analysis; and sector strategies.

The CBS also affirmed the government's commitment to an effective scientific base and to make strategic investments in R&D to support biotechnology innovation, the regulatory framework and economic development.

R&D Spending On The Increase

The government estimated Canadian expenditures in biotechnology R&D exceed C$750 million a year. While total R&D expenditures by Canadian industry are growing at an annual rate of 8 percent, those relating to biotechnology are growing at a rate of some 20 percent.

Capital financing for biotechnology reached C$2 billion for the period 1991 to 1996, with $1 billion of that occurring in 1996 alone, and with more than 90 percent going to the human health care sector.

Despite these figures, the NBAC has raised concerns that the government has eliminated key national biotechnology projects, such as its genome program, resulting in the industry's weakness in genomics development. *