Canada has reached an early agreement with Pfizer to begin delivering doses of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate for a limited rollout this month, but the company wants to initially minimize transport of the vaccine, which could create challenges for access.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country will soon receive up to 249,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. Pending Health Canada approval, the first shipment of doses are to be delivered next week and will continue into the new year with millions of doses on the way, Mr. Trudeau said during a news conference Monday.
Distribution will happen next week through 14 different provincial sites identified across the country, Mr. Trudeau said, noting that there will be one site in each province with the exception of the four largest provinces, which will have two.
Christina Antoniou, a spokeswoman for Pfizer Canada, said the company is asking that the vaccines be administered only at designated locations for the time being. One of the greatest challenges for the Pfizer vaccine is needing to preserve it at an extremely low temperature, which means safely transporting it would be difficult.
Pfizer, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the provinces are working together to complete preparations including “first point-of-use sites,” she said, as well as training on how to handle the product. Ms. Antoniou said the designated sites were identified by the federal government’s National Operations Centre for initial vaccination of priority populations.
Ontario officials also said the company is informing provinces that the vaccines can’t initially be transported from their first point of contact, which are hospitals in the province. The government has not publicly named the two hospitals.
“All jurisdictions will be dealing with this challenge of this particular vaccine,” said Ivana Yelich, spokeswoman for Premier Doug Ford.
Mr. Trudeau’s government faces increased political pressure from opposition parties over Ottawa’s plan for distributing COVID-19 vaccines. An effective vaccine would be seen as a significant tool to help confront both the public-health emergency brought about by the virus and the economic recession created in its midst.
Major-General Dany Fortin, a former NATO commander who is leading the distribution of vaccines across the country, said the territories have indicated a preference to use other vaccine candidates because of the complexity associated with distributing the Pfizer vaccine, which must be held at an extremely cold temperature.
Mr. Trudeau said the distribution plan will allow doses to get out to the most vulnerable while it will also demonstrate the mobilization of vaccines across the country.
Canada will uphold its globally recognized “gold standard” for medical approvals, and an independent decision will be made by Health Canada scientists, Mr. Trudeau said, as he stressed that he wants to assure Canadians that any vaccine approved here will be both safe and effective.
Distribution to the provinces and territories will be done on a per capita basis, Mr. Trudeau added.
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said Monday that his province is ready to start vaccinations next week, with the first two locations being long-term care facilities, one in Montreal and the other in Quebec City. The province wants to vaccinate LTC residents and personnel first. Next on the priority list will be more autonomous residents of seniors’ homes and remote communities.
The province is getting an initial shipment of 4,000 Pfizer doses, with another 57,000 doses expected between Dec. 21 and Jan. 4.
Mr. Dubé said Quebec has been working with Pfizer to identify 20 locations in the province where the vaccine could later be delivered and administered, one per region, with four in Montreal.
He said half of the 20 sites are LTC facilities that are large enough to justify getting delivery of a thermal-shipper box of 975 doses. Some long-term care homes in Quebec have 300 to 350 residents.
Because of the need for ultracold storage of the vaccine, smaller Quebec LTC homes and some outlying communities may not get vaccinated according to their priority spots, said public-health physician Richard Massé.
Ontario’s Premier said Monday that his province is also ready to receive and distribute the first batch of vaccines, adding that the top priority is getting them out to those who need them as quickly as possible.
He said the first shipments of a very small number of doses could arrive as early as next week, but the province is still far from having millions of doses for mass immunization.
On Monday, Ontario released its list of key populations who will receive the vaccine first, including long-term care and retirement-home residents, and their staff and caregivers.
The province said it will prioritize areas with the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in Ontario’s red zones and the lockdown regions, which currently include Toronto and Peel. Others who will receive early doses include health care workers, adults in Indigenous communities and those receiving home care for chronic conditions.
Retired general Rick Hillier, who chairs Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccination task force, said the province’s rollout will be done in three phases. He said Ontario will receive 2.4 million doses – enough to inoculate 1.2 million people – in the first quarter of 2021. Mr. Hillier said the province expects about 85,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the first batch of 249,000 expected this month.
“People are going to have to be patient that their turn will come.”
In Alberta, the provincial government said the vaccine will be delivered to one of two receiving sites, which are located in Calgary and Edmonton.
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said the initial vaccines must be administered at the two sites where the shipments are received.
With a report from James Keller from Calgary
The Globe and Mail
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