Skip to main content
flu planning

The restricted availability of flu shots at the beginning of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic raised fears of shortages.

The federal government wants some backup in case its main supplier of pandemic flu vaccine can't deliver.

The move may be a partial answer to criticism that surfaced during an uneasy period of the H1N1 crisis when it appeared Canada wasn't getting vaccine quickly enough to meet the demand. There were criticisms of the government for having only one supplier of vaccine.

Now, the federal government is looking for a 10-year contract with a domestic supplier to make pandemic vaccine and a portion of the seasonal flu vaccine that's needed.

As well, it has requested proposals from other pharmaceutical companies for a three-year contract to provide seasonal flu vaccine with the option of also being a backup supplier of vaccine for a pandemic, should it be required.

If two such contracts are awarded, it would be a change from Canada's long-standing practice of having only one supplier of pandemic vaccine.

"I think it's a good decision. I think it's a sound decision," said Perry Kendall, chief medical officer of health for British Columbia.

"It'll give us an added level of security."

Canada was the first country to sign a pandemic flu vaccine contract, back in 2001. That deal with GlaxoSmithKline ends next spring and the government wants to sign another 10-year deal.

The Public Works Department posted the two contract notices last month, and the deadline to apply passed a few weeks ago. The value of the deals isn't listed on the two contract notices.

One condition for the long-term contract is that it must go to a manufacturer located in Canada.

The government has made having a domestic supplier of vaccine a part of its pandemic planning since the United States refused to allow the export of vaccine destined for Canada during the 1976 swine flu scare.

Those who know the file say domestic supplier is code for GlaxoSmithKline, the only company that meets Ottawa's criteria. The company's plant at Ste-Foy, Que., is the only flu vaccine production facility in Canada.

Whoever gets the pandemic vaccine contract will also have to make at least five million doses of the seasonal flu shot that people get each year, according to the contract notice.

The government is also planning to award a three-year contract to a second company to make roughly the same amount of the seasonal flu shot. Part of the shorter deal also includes "an option for a backup pandemic vaccine supply if acceptable and viable for Canada," says the contract notice.

"If it is determined that a backup pandemic supply arrangement is feasible, establishing a readiness contract in advance would enhance Canada's ability to get vaccine from offshore in the event that delays are experienced by the primary supplier," the Public Health Agency of Canada said in an e-mail.

The Public Health Agency added that having a second supplier of pandemic vaccine could allow access to an "alternate vaccine formulation" if it's required for higher-risk groups such as health-care workers, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions - if the alternate formulation isn't available from the domestic supplier.

Sanofi Pasteur spokeswoman Nancy Simpson confirmed the company has bid on the contract to make a backup supply of pandemic vaccine. But she says the company hasn't been told when the federal government will award the contract.

It's unclear how many other companies might have bid on the contract.

There were an uneasy few weeks during the height of the H1N1 scare - amid uncertainty about how bad the pandemic would be - when it appeared Canada might not get vaccine quickly enough.

The government was hammered in Parliament and in the editorial pages for not having contracts with multiple suppliers.

"The concern was, it would be a sensible move in the future to look at having a contingency, backup supplier," Dr. Kendall said.

"We were criticized for only having one domestic supplier, even though that supplier came through in the end. So the thought was, if we can have a backup supplier, then we have an extra measure of security."

But, in the end, Canada got more vaccine sooner than probably any other country and it immunized more of its population than any other nation that attempted vaccination against H1N1.

GlaxoSmithKline says it's proud of how it handled the H1N1 outbreak, and it welcomes having a backup supplier.

"We supplied more pandemic vaccine than any other manufacturer in the world, and provided it on a better timescale," the company said in a statement.

"However, as a patient-focused company, GSK recognizes that it always a good idea to have a backup plan, especially in circumstances as integral to public health as pandemic immunization programs and contracts."

The U.S. had five suppliers, and that didn't assure Americans speedy access to sufficient quantities of vaccine, many observers have since noted.

The Canadian Press