Forward-thinking policy makers around the world always knew that it was never going to be enough to simply fund the development of vaccines against COVID-19 to get on top of the worst pandemic in a century. They knew they would have to ensure that those vaccines could be produced, distributed and administered faster than the virus could spread and mutate.
Many countries, including Canada, counted on the United States to do the heavy lifting in this regard. The U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed not only provided billions of research dollars to vaccine developers, it also advanced pharmaceutical companies billions more to ensure they began to scale up their manufacturing capacity before their vaccines even left the lab.
In July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided US$1.95-billion to Pfizer Inc. “for the production and nationwide delivery of the first 100 million doses” of the COVID-19 vaccine the U.S.-based pharmaceutical giant was then developing with Germany’s BioNTech. There was no guarantee, then, that the U.S. government would ever see a return on its investment.
As U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to make good on his promise to administer 100 million vaccine doses to Americans during his first 100 days in office, Canadians are right to wonder whether their federal government dropped the ball as countries around the world scrambled to secure vaccine doses to inoculate their populations against COVID-19.
Even if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government keeps its promise of delivering six million doses of vaccines produced by Pfizer and U.S.-based Moderna to the provinces by the end of March – and repeated delays cast doubt on that promise – Canada is still likely to lag far behind the United States, Britain and many European countries in the race to vaccinate its citizens.
Major-General Dany Fortin, appointed by the Trudeau government to lead vaccine logistics in this country, revealed on Tuesday that deliveries of the Pfizer product to Canada will grind to a halt next week as the company retools the Belgian plant that supplies the Canadian market with its innovative mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. That was after he had previously disclosed that Pfizer was reducing vaccine deliveries to Canada right through to the end of February.
European countries that are being supplied by the same plant in Puurs, Belgium, will not experience anywhere near the same inconveniences as Canada as Pfizer upgrades its facilities. Indeed, their vaccine orders appear to be getting priority treatment over this country’s and the Trudeau government is at a loss to explain why.
Last Friday, when Pfizer’s first delivery delays were made public, Mr. Trudeau simply said the issue was “out of our hands.” Ottawa delayed disclosing next week’s halt of all Pfizer vaccine deliveries until after Mr. Trudeau met with reporters on Tuesday, sparing him more uncomfortable questions about why Canada seems to be getting the short end of the stick from Pfizer. He insisted, however, that Pfizer and Moderna are “respecting the contracts we have signed.”
If that is true, it is worth asking whether Mr. Trudeau and Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand knowingly signed contracts last summer that left Canada vulnerable to arbitrary delivery delays by Pfizer, or simply failed to read the fine print.
By the time Canada announced its deal with Pfizer in August, the U.S. government had already agreed to pay upfront to receive the first 100 million vaccine doses produced at the company’s Kalamazoo, Mich., plant, barely 200 kilometres from the Canadian border. Canada would likely have had to pay a hefty premium to Pfizer for even a fraction of those U.S.-produced vaccines. But with delivery delays now undermining Canada’s vaccination schedules, not to mention the morale of millions of exhausted Canadians, hindsight suggests that we should have done so.
Canada foolishly surrendered its vaccine manufacturing capacity years ago and, while we should rebuild it, it is too late to do so for this pandemic. Still, Mr. Trudeau has refused to say whether he has even picked up the phone to ask Pfizer chief executive officer Albert Bourla to accelerate vaccine deliveries. If he had, he would have said so.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has bragged about personally telephoning Mr. Bourla 17 times in recent months to ensure his country has enough vaccines to meet its ambitious target of inoculating most of its population by the end of March. On Tuesday, an exasperated Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that, were he in Mr. Trudeau’s position, he would be up Mr. Bourla’s “ying-yang so far with a firecracker, he wouldn’t know what hit him.”
Securing the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines fast enough to make a difference is not a partisan issue. It is a life-or-death imperative. Mr. Trudeau should be on the phone day and night to Mr. Bourla and anyone else in a position to fix this problem. That is his job.
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