Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wanted: one reality-based government

The isotope story progresses today in a somewhat predictable manner with a serious report on the crunch our hospitals are experiencing: "Isotope costs surge as supply dwindles." The little twist in the saga today, however, is that the Maples reactors, the planned but mothballed backups to Chalk River, are getting more attention now as a result of the effects of the shortage manifesting themselves in our hospitals. The Maples are the "elephant in the room" in this story. There are two pieces in the National Post on those reactors that may tap into and further a growing public sentiment. That sentiment being that the Harper government needs to get its head out of the sand and react to what's going on by seriously recalculating the moves it has made on this file.

First, from the Globe report, news that suppliers are doing exactly what suppliers do when their commodity is scarce:
Suppliers of medical isotopes are dramatically hiking their prices amid a worldwide shortage of a tool used to detect cancer and heart illnesses, resulting in higher costs for cash-strapped hospitals and longer waiting times for patients.
The costs are adding up, as hospital budgets are being stretched to pay the increased prices, wait times increase, delays in surgeries occur. Clinic hours are being extended to make use of decaying and time limited isotopes. Nuclear medicine professionals fear layoffs. Ontario continues to ask the federal government for financial assistance to cope. No doubt other provinces will do the same once they feel the crunch as well.

Meanwhile, there is a meeting happening in the land of the totally out of touch:
An expert committee set up by the Harper government to explore ways of securing a long-term supply of medical isotopes will meet for the first time Thursday.
High time for that first meeting. Mr. Harper's committee is very late to the party, that's a process that should have been well underway following the 2007 shutdown.

But as mentioned above, that committee will likely be taking note of a few other well-timed items in the news today. Terence Corcoran (yes) has a good overview of some of the major issues surrounding the Maples reactors which were shut down by a decision of AECL/the Harper government in May of 2008. Among them, he cites experts who say those reactors could work and could in fact be "a new industrial champion" and the solution to the isotope shortage. He also sets out the conflicting dollar figures that have been cited for the cost of refitting them to work. They range from "tens of millions" (a U. S. National Academy of Science Committee) to hundreds of millions. If it's not so costly an endeavour, we should pursue their re-start. Two thoughts from his piece stood out:
If the MAPLE reactors can produce isotopes for the Canadian market according to the panel's mandate, why would the panel not be able to recommend in favour of finishing the MAPLE reactors?
Good question, yet with this government, who knows if that committee will be free to so recommend. And one other point:
There is, clearly, more to the Canadian MAPLE isotope story than Canadians have heard so far.
That seems very clear given the number of experts stating that they can work. The Harper government has not been straight on that, including Mr. Harper himself who wrongly stated that they had not produced isotopes.

The other piece is by Jill Chitra, an expert who works at MDS Nordion. MDS is admittedly self-interested in the restoration of the Maples, yet Chitra's views, previously expressed to the Commons Natural Resources Committee, were backed up by an independent expert as legitimate scientific viewpoint. Here's the essence of what she writes today, in "How to solve the medical isotope crisis":
The MAPLE reactors faced challenges. But they did work. They created isotopes, they’re complete and they await final commissioning. These facts have been validated by independent observers. Indeed, numerous international experts have said that the MAPLE reactors could be brought into full service.
The solution for new medical-isotope production capacity is right here in Canada. Re-starting the MAPLE project is the right public policy position — for the well-being of patients, for progress in nuclear medicine, for innovation in health care and for Canada’s leadership in a vital area of science and technology.
Faced with this medical crisis, substantial expert opinion and growing restless public sentiment, the big question remains whether the Harper government will react like a reality-based government and make policy adjustments on the nuclear file that take such factors into account. Not holding our breath but it's what they really should do...

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.