In Garrison Keillor’s fictional and idealized rural town of Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
It seems that Canadians can harbour such Wobegon-esque delusions, too, as witnessed by the faux outrage about the purchase and delivery of coronavirus vaccines.
Canada is – shock, horror – not at the front of the line for vaccine delivery. The pharmaceutical superpowers that produce vaccines – the United States, Germany, Britain – will be first.
Some political rhetoricians have claimed that Canada will be last in line. That’s nonsense. No one knows for sure where we are in the international queue, but it’s probably somewhere in the middle of the pack.
But the fact is that not everyone can be above average, except in a fictional world.
Much is made of the fact that Canada does not have a lot of capacity to produce coronavirus vaccines domestically. That’s a long-standing issue with a lot of history behind it, but among other things, it boils down to manufacturers’ instincts for centralizing production, which has led pharma companies to eschew the minuscule market of Canada.
You can’t snap your fingers and start producing vaccines overnight. Small-scale production is not efficient.
Realistically, during a pandemic, when vaccines were being developed at a breakneck speed, getting our supply elsewhere was the safest and smartest option. That’s what the Canadian government has done, signing contracts with seven manufacturers for a total of 358 million doses – the most per capita of any country in the world. (The excess will go to developing countries, one hopes.) That includes 56 million doses from Pfizer, 20 million from Moderna and 20 million from AstraZeneca – the three companies whose products are closest to coming to market.
Over the weekend, however, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole said that the Liberal government had waited too long to sign those contracts, arguing that we had put “all our eggs in the basket of China,” in reference to the CanSino initiative, a plan for the National Research Council of Canada and China to collaborate on a vaccine. That fell apart when relations soured between the two countries.
But no one ever suggested that CanSino would be the sole producer – or even the biggest supplier – of vaccines for Canada. Nor could anyone have predicted the geopolitical bumps in the road.
Mr. O’Toole’s hindsight is 20/20. His demands that the federal government produce a precise timetable for vaccine distribution are equally fantastical.
No matter how much politicians huff and puff and demand “straight answers,” there are still a lot more unknowns that knowns. Anyone who thinks they can circle dates on the calendar and say with any certainty when vaccination will begin and when it will be completed is a fool.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was slammed when he stated that maybe half of Canadians would be vaccinated by September, 2021. But that was probably the most honest and realistic thing that’s been said about vaccines in a while. This is going to take time, and the path to ending the pandemic will be zigzaggy. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
Three vaccines have demonstrated promising results. But they still have to go through regulatory approval, be manufactured and get distributed. For all we know, one or more could flame out; unexpected problems could arise in the real world, as they often do with new drugs.
Let’s hope new vaccine candidates also come along, because what we really need is a vaccine that is cheaper, requires a single shot and doesn’t have to be kept in an ultracold freezer.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should sit on our hands. We should decide who will be vaccinated first – frail elders in institutional care, front-line health workers, et cetera – and make sure that is done as efficiently as possible.
But it’s more important to do this right than to do it quickly.
Our efforts, political and otherwise, should go into creating the best plan going forward, rather than an endless chorus of woulda, coulda, shouldas.
We already have a pretty good vaccine distribution supply chain in place for annual flu vaccination. Now we need to put that chain on steroids, and with military precision. To that end, the federal and Ontario governments have tapped former Canadian Forces stalwarts – Major-General Dany Fortin and General Rick Hillier, respectively – to oversee the logistics work. These are good choices, because vaccinating an entire country will require a war-like effort.
But generals are used to working in a command-and-control structure. And as the pandemic response becomes increasingly politicized and partisan, they may be surprised at how much friendly fire they’ll have to endure.
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