Despite the enthusiasm Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to bring to his announcement Tuesday, when he said that Canada had struck a deal to manufacture millions of COVID-19 vaccines at home, the agreement won’t do much to get us out of the acute phase of this pandemic.
That’s because the deal with Novavax to churn out its vaccine at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) in Montreal is contingent on the completion of a new production centre, which won’t be finished until summer or early fall. The facility will then need to be configured to the specifics of the Novavax vaccine and certified for production by Health Canada, which could take several months, meaning it won’t be until the end of 2021, earliest, that Canada can start producing the vaccine – months after the government’s promised September deadline of offering everyone who wants one a COVID-19 vaccine. It’s hard to get excited about Canadian-made vaccines that will be produced only after Canadians no longer need them.
Granted, the capacity to produce vaccines at home will be useful for future pandemics, or if COVID-19 variants require vaccine boosters. But there’s a third possibility that may justify the Novavax fanfare: perhaps despite the Prime Minister’s assurances, Canada is not on track for mass vaccinations by September, and maybe we will need those domestically produced Novavax vaccines after all.
It’s a miserable scenario to contemplate, especially amid news that the U.K. is on track to vaccinate its entire population by mid-May, and reports that the U.S. will dispatch vaccines directly to pharmacies next week. Canada, meanwhile, is ranked 29th in the world for vaccinations per capita, and the government is grappling with reduced deliveries and the looming threat of European Union vaccine export controls (though the EU confirmed in a statement to CBC News that it has approved vaccine deliveries to Canada).
Canadians would nevertheless be justified in feeling anxious about our vaccine efforts, since the federal government has relied mostly on a “trust us” approach. Indeed, Ottawa has been extraordinarily secretive about many of the details of how and when vaccines will make their way to Canada, refusing to disclose delivery schedules agreed upon in purchasing contracts and ballpark figures of prices paid per dose. Other purchasers, by comparison, including the U.S. and the EU, have posted copies (albeit heavily redacted) of their vaccine agreements with various manufacturers.
Last week, the Prime Minister insisted that Canada has “always tried to be as transparent as possible” when sharing information about the country’s vaccination efforts. But when asked months ago, Mr. Trudeau was evasive about why Canada did not negotiate domestic manufacturing rights for the AstraZeneca vaccine. He suggested that Canada did not have capacity for domestic vaccine production even though upgrades of a NRC facility were already underway and despite the availability of private vaccine manufacturers such as Montreal-based PnuVax Inc.
Mr. Trudeau circled around the question when asked why his government chose to invest in foreign mRNA candidates rather than ones in production here at home, such as that by Providence Therapeutics, by simply stating that his government took the advice of its vaccine task force. And a few weeks ago, Procurement Minister Anita Anand wouldn’t even answer a straightforward question about whether the Prime Minister had personally been in touch with Pfizer’s CEO, even when asked directly by a reporter three times.
This country has a bizarre approach to access to information, where opacity is an impulse rather than a carefully considered last resort. It may be that certain specific details of Canada’s vaccine program cannot be released because of commercial confidentiality agreements with manufacturers, but if that is the case, Mr. Trudeau should come out and just say so. Yet that would not explain the government’s near-total refusal to speak to anything but the most general features of Canada’s vaccine-procurement efforts, which is most likely a symptom of the government’s preoccupation with micromanaging its communications. It is more politically advantageous, after all, to say next to nothing about Canada’s vaccine contracts and then – boom – announce millions of doses on their way alongside a picture of the Procurement Minister standing next to a plane.
Transparency won’t change the pace of vaccinations in Canada, but it will offer something of a framework for the future for people who have been navigating uncertainty for the better part of a year. And it was supposed to be the default position of a party that pledged to govern on a mantra of openness, access and disclosure. But listening to the Prime Minister string together talking points in response to specific questions about Canada’s vaccine program is evidence enough of how that’s going. Fingers crossed, I guess, for meeting that September deadline.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.