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A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine sticker and a medical syringe in front of displayed Pfizer logo on Oct. 30, 2020.

DADO RUVIC/Reuters

Ottawa is on the hunt for “mission critical” technology to manage its COVID-19 vaccine distribution as hundreds of thousands of doses of the inoculation are set to arrive in Canada.

In a draft request for proposals sent in late November to seven large technology, accounting and consulting companies, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says this system must start working by January and will be immediately needed for the “ordering and distribution” of vaccines.

The solicitation documents, which were obtained by The Globe and Mail, say the platform must allow provinces to place orders, track adverse effects from the vaccinations, and ensure the vaccines are distributed before their shelf-life expires. The technology will “ensure rapid and successful management of the COVID-19 vaccine administration program across the nation,” the documents read.

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Public Services and Procurement Canada confirmed the draft solicitation documents were sent to the seven companies. “The final [request for proposals] is expected to be issued directly to the same pre-selected suppliers in the coming days,” a spokesperson Eric Morrissette told The Globe. “A contract award is expected in late December, or early January.”

PHAC said until it gets this new system it is using “existing data and IT systems to manage COVID-19 vaccine rollout, administration, and immunization reporting.” The request for proposals, PHAC says, is about “enhancing the capabilities of its information systems to adapt to the monitoring of new COVID-19 vaccines and their unique requirements, including storage at very cold temperature.”

The procurement documents reveal Ottawa is seeking its national vaccine management information technology platform quickly. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has said Canada needs something to augment the information technology platforms and to support the different systems.

The documents say the “intelligent supply chain” Ottawa is looking for “will be the core foundational capability to ensure the minimum operation of the National Operation Centre managing the national rollout of the vaccine.”

The mass immunization against COVID-19 will likely be one of the largest and most complex health efforts undertaken by Canada in modern history. Tens of millions of doses of vaccines are due to arrive in the coming months.

The Pfizer vaccine, the first to be approved for use in Canada, needs to be stored at -70°C. An information sheet provided by Pfizer reads that the vaccines will be shipped with a supply of dry ice, keeping them at the ultralow temperature, but that the ice will need to be replenished every five days if they are to be stored long-term. Some vaccines will require two doses, others just one. “This mission-critical system will provide supply chain management of short shelf life vaccine products … and end-to-end traceability, and visibility of the demand, inventory, and distribution of the vaccines,” the documents read.

The second piece of the platform, an “immunization information system,” will provide analytics and “detect patterns of vaccination in the community.” It will also monitor adverse reactions, alerting PHAC to possible bad batches, or to broader problems of allergic reactions. Early results show the Pfizer vaccine may cause reactions in those with strong allergies.

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The final part of the system is an “immunization program management” tool, which would help PHAC manage vaccinations for Indigenous communities and veterans.

Rather than making this an open tender, meaning any company can submit proposals and bids, Ottawa invited just seven companies to apply: information technology firm CGI Inc.; computer giant IBM; and accounting and consulting firms Deloitte Inc., Ernst & Young LLP, KPMG LLP, Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP, and Accenture Inc.

Only the Montreal-based CGI is fully Canadian. Public Services and Procurement Canada says the firms were chosen based on information technology and security requirements

Because the request for proposals is still a draft, it does not indicate cost or a firm timeline.

The companies invited to submit proposals either declined or did not reply to requests for comment about their capabilities to deliver such a massive technological undertaking.

For months, Ottawa has highlighted the work that has gone into securing vaccines and the logistics to get them to the provinces. But it has said little about the technology that will underlie how it manages and monitors the distribution.

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Iris Gorfinkel, a general practitioner, vaccine researcher and founder of PrimeHealth Clinical Research, told The Globe that “now is the time to get these systems in place because if we don’t, we will regret it later.” Dr. Gorfinkel wrote an article for the Canadian Medical Association Journal in August, laying out a “blueprint” for a national vaccine registry, similar to what Ottawa is seeking now. She says good tracking and surveillance means as few doses as possible will be wasted, bad batches will be caught early, and good clinical data will be available for researchers everywhere.

Canada’s existing health database that tracks vaccines, implemented after the SARS outbreak in 2004, has cost nearly $150-million. But Dr. Gorfinkel says not enough people are using it. Technological constraints mean that the barcodes that identify individual vaccines can’t be scanned, and need to be entered manually.

Nevertheless, some provinces are using the database, called Panorama, to manage their COVID-19 vaccine programs. The request for proposals notes that the new system is designed to run alongside Panorama.

The first vaccines are set to arrive this month, with another three million being delivered by March, pending approval.

Dr. Gorfinkel says what’s needed right now is a “QDOS – a quick and dirty operating system.” Ottawa needs a platform that can do the basic job now, and it ought to worry about the additional features and tools later, she says. “No way this thing is going to be perfect,” she says. “What matters most is that it’s done.”

With reports from Eric Andrew-Gee in Toronto and Marieke Walsh in Ottawa

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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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