Days after discovering it faced a massive shortage of H1N1 flu vaccine just as public anxiety over the pandemic's second wave was ramping up across the country, the Public Health Agency of Canada turned to government agencies it had given thousands of doses of the vaccine in specially designated shipments - and asked if they could spare a few.
The public health agency provided the departments of national defence and foreign affairs, as well as the Canadian International Development Agency, with thousands of doses of H1N1 vaccine early in the flu season, before they were available in public clinics Canada-wide. Many of these shots had been specially requisitioned when plans for the virus were in their infancy last March.
But after finding out at the end of October that manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline wasn't able to produce as much of the vaccine as expected because it was also trying to manufacture unadjuvanted vaccine at the same time, the public health agency asked for tens of thousands of doses to be returned, apparently to be diverted to high-risk members of the public in the face of huge demand and a looming, last-minute shortage.
The Department of National Defence originally received 110,000 doses of vaccine, which they'd ordered months ago when the viral strain was first detected. The doses were meant for Canadian Forces members with an "operational requirement" - from soldiers in Kandahar to logisticians to officers prepped to take to the seas on either coast or designated to fight forest fires.
It started inoculating thousands of staff on Oct. 26.
"PHAC came back to us ... saying, 'Could you give us doses back?' " said Major André Berdais, adding that DND returned 30,500 doses on Tuesday.
"We also at that point told our bases, 'Start looking at what you have and see what we could give out if need be.' " Public health could not say by the end of the day Friday how many doses had been returned by the department of foreign affairs or CIDA, or where the tens of thousands of returned doses had been directed.
Meanwhile, Canada's premiers will press the federal government to give them more timely information on just how much H1N1 vaccine is available for the provinces, so they can better plan the rollout of their inoculation plans.
Officials across Canada have expressed frustration that Ottawa has been slow to inform them about how much vaccine provinces and territories will get each week. Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Arlene King, was caught off guard this week when reporters asked her how much of the 1.8 million doses Ontario is getting next week.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall held a conference call with his provincial colleagues Friday, and they discussed approaching Ottawa about making sure they have as much information as possible. "I think there might be some things that can still be done to improve information," Mr. Wall told reporters. "The provinces will be able to better plan if we have at least some tracking estimates on the vaccine."
With files from Karen Howlett and Caroline Alphonso