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A box of Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines is delivered to the Maimonides long term care home in Montreal, Dec. 14, 2020.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

The federal government says upgrades are necessary to Canada’s vaccine-tracking technology because of the “complex and fragile nature” of the COVID-19 vaccine, but it can’t explain why it started looking for a solution just weeks ago.

The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in Canada on Monday. But the Public Health Agency of Canada, in a letter to industry, says there are still “mission critical” upgrades needed to their existing computer systems to manage the largest inoculation campaign in Canadian history.

Those systems will be crucial to tracking vaccine supply chains, from the manufacturer to injection. They are also needed to monitor storage and shelf life to avoid wasted doses, to track adverse reactions and to monitor progress in building immunity to the virus.

The Globe and Mail reported last Friday that Ottawa sent a draft “request for proposal” letter to industry on Nov. 30 seeking companies to deliver technology that will “ensure rapid and successful management of the COVID-19 vaccine administration program across the nation.”

The government is hoping to have those computer upgrades by Jan. 1, although the person in charge of the vaccine program now says it will likely take months to bring online. Opposition politicians expressed alarm that delays could throw a wrench in the mass-vaccination program.

At a press conference on Monday, Procurement Minister Anita Anand said PHAC is able to track vaccines and monitor their distribution. But, she said, there is a need to “supplement existing systems with greater usability with greater functionality.”

Those upgrades are “required because of the complex and fragile nature of these vaccines,” Ms. Anand said. “In addition, we need to make sure that we have national capability for vaccine tracking.”

Ms. Anand declined to give a timeline for the installation of those new systems, or comment on why the letter to companies did not go out until late November. She only said that “work is being done now in very short order.”

Ottawa has identified seven large technology, accounting and consulting firms that it thinks can do the work, according to the documents obtained by The Globe. The system will be used by the National Operations Centre to manage the vaccine campaign.

Major-General Dany Fortin, who was tapped by Ottawa to head up the centre, told reporters on Monday that the provinces also have computer systems in place to manage the delivery of the vaccines. “The next step, though, is to have a more advanced system. And that’s going to be rolled out.”

Maj.-Gen. Fortin said that a “more up-to-date, more robust” system will be designed to connect to the technology used by the provinces and territories. He put the timeline for that system as: “In the next months.”

Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative health critic, said PHAC’s need for upgrades to its vaccine management technology came as a shock to her. “We haven’t been briefed on this,” she said in an interview.

She said there has been significant “time lost” between identifying and acquiring the promising vaccine candidates and figuring out how to manage their distribution. “I don’t think the government has had a cohesive plan,” Ms. Rempel Garner said.

A final version of the draft request for proposal is likely to be sent out this week, according to the agency. Ottawa now says that it will not even award a contract until the end of December or early January.

“It’s Dec. 12 and we don’t have the data management system,” NDP health critic Don Davies said over the weekend. He said that situation is “concerning, maybe even alarming.”

Mr. Davies said it should not have been news to the Trudeau government that Canada would need an extensive information technology solution to manage the vaccine rollout – everything from its delivery into Canada, to its distribution to points across the country, monitoring of its storage and shelf life, and analyzing the immunity of the population at large.

Some of the companies identified by Ottawa are mainly technology providers. Others, such as Deloitte and KPMG, are primarily accounting or consulting firms.

One of the possible contractors, IBM Canada Ltd., was instrumental in building Panorama, the digital health record system that does many of the things Ottawa is asking from its new platform. The system, developed by government-funded, non-profit Canada Health Infoway and IBM, was developed with $150-million in federal money.

The health database was originally supposed to be an existing, off-the-shelf product retooled for Canada’s needs, provided by IBM. But the company abandoned that plan and built a new system from scratch, with huge delays and cost overruns on the provincial level. More than 15 years after work began, eight provinces and territories use Panorama. A 2017 PHAC report found that just 37 First Nations had adopted Panorama.

As Ms. Rempel Garner pointed out, for all that time and money spent, “we don’t have the capacity to aggregate data at the federal level or share data between provinces.”

Mr. Davies said the solicitation letter appears to “an acknowledgement that the current system is not up to the job.” Some provinces, however, are planning to use Panorama to monitor their own rollout.

The Trudeau government remains optimistic that, even if a final contract isn’t awarded until 2021, that it can get the system online in time for the arrival of millions of doses of the vaccine in the coming weeks and months.

Science reporter Ivan Semeniuk outlines how Canada benefited from researchers working in parallel and accelerated the approval process to have a safe COVID-19 vaccine ready so quickly.

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