Procurement Minister Anita Anand says if opposition parties approve a parliamentary probe of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic — including some of its sensitive contracts — then suppliers for coronavirus vaccine candidates and protective gear could “walk away.”
“I do not want to be back here to explain to Canadians that because of the disclosure we were forced to make, we were not able to secure vaccines or PPE for Canadians because our supplies chose to walk away,” she said during a press conference on Monday morning.
“I am seriously saying our contracts – vaccines, PPE, rapid test kits – are in jeopardy.”
Opposition parties are poised to approve a House of Commons health committee probe of the government’s pandemic response, but some of the proposals to force disclosure of documents including details of some of the contracts the government is keeping secret have raised industry concerns.
The motion would order the government to turn over to the House of Commons health committee all records on a raft of issues related to the government’s handling of the pandemic.
That includes the purchase of personal protective equipment, medical devices and pharmaceuticals, and in a letter to Health Canada, Pfizer says it wants to know how its commercial secrets will be protected.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Canada is among those raising concerns about the motion, set to be voted on in the House of Commons Monday.
Anand said other firms have expressed similar concerns to her over the weekend.
“The sensitive information in those contracts cannot be underestimated. There are confidentiality clauses, there are propriety information clauses, there is information relating to the models of particular devices,” she said, noting nothing “compels” firms like Pfizer to agree to sell to Canada in the first place.
“The question is stark: why, in the middle of a second wave, would we jeopardize those contracts?
The motion is expected to pass with support from the federal New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois, who have insisted there is sufficient protection for industry while accusing the Liberals of stirring fears.
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Unlike a similar Conservative motion defeated last week that would have created a committee to look into the WE controversy, the government has said the health committee motion will not be a confidence vote.
In a letter to a senior Health Canada official obtained by The Canadian Press, Pfizer Canada president Cole Pinnow says his company is concerned about the “likely unintended consequences” of such a review.
Pinnow specifically mentions a requirement in the motion that the government produce documents related to the production and purchase of a vaccine for COVID-19.
He goes on to say that while the company is seeking legal advice, it wants to hear from Health Canada what process will be used to vet sensitive information before it is released to the committee.
“We are deeply concerned with the implications and likely unintended consequences should this motion receive the support of enough parliamentarians,” Pinnow wrote to Health Canada assistant deputy minister Pierre Sabourin.
“As we seek legal counsel, we would like to understand what vetting process Health Canada intends to use and how would third parties, like Pfizer, be consulted prior to the release of any information.”
In a follow up email answering questions from The Canadian Press, Pfizer’s director of corporate affairs Christina Antoniou wrote that the company would like to see stronger language in the motion on protecting corporate secrets, especially regarding its vaccine-development efforts.
“The release of technically or commercially sensitive information may have deeply damaging and unpredictable effects on Pfizer and for the development program,” she wrote.
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Protections for scientific and commercial secrets, and a promise to consult companies affected by the probe, “would provide manufacturers like Pfizer the confidentiality assurances we should expect from the government.”
Pfizer’s concerns about the proposed probe reflect those raised in recent days by other industry players, including Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, which represents thousands of companies in Canada.
CME on Friday wrote to federal procurement minister Anita Anand raising concerns about “the risk of proprietary, sensitive or confidential business information suddenly being disclosed to the public.”
The co-chair of the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force has also spoken out against the motion, telling The Canadian Press such a wide-ranging investigation now could do more harm than good.
Dr. David Naylor said the proposed study is too expansive and will ultimately create more work and distractions for the federal public service at a time when it is already working full out.
© 2020 The Canadian Press