Skip to main content

Canada’s vaccine rollout finally moved into a higher gear this week, as imported doses started to arrive in big enough numbers to put a dent in the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even before the week is out, there are new doubts about whether the pace of delivery will be maintained.

The European Union appears set to impose new rules that would allow it to limit vaccine exports for the next six weeks, in order to protect its own badly faltering supply.

All of Canada’s doses from Pfizer and Moderna – this country’s two largest suppliers, by far – are made in Europe.

The Trudeau government says it has received assurances from EU officials that Canada’s deliveries won’t be hit. But the EU guidelines themselves provide no such assurances.

This is all so frustrating. After an earlier round of delayed deliveries caused a painfully slow start to Canada’s vaccine rollout well into March, we were beginning to see daylight.

The federal government says more than 18-million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are supposed to arrive between now and the end of May. The vast majority – 97 per cent – are from the European facilities of Pfizer and Moderna.

For Ottawa, Job No. 1 over the coming days has to be ensuring that the EU’s assurances are real, and remain so.

The EU’s main target is clearly Britain, and a dispute over AstraZeneca vaccines. AstraZeneca has two plants each in the EU and Britain. To date, the EU plants have shipped millions of doses to Britain, whereas none have come the other way.

As a result, Britain has a lot more vaccines than the EU, and its vaccination rollout has been a huge success. Britain’s vaccination rate is 45 shots per 100 people; the EU is stuck at just under 14 shots per 100.

Add to this the hard feelings associated with Brexit, plus the latest resurgence of the virus on the continent and the return of lockdowns and curfews in France and Italy, and European politicians are under intense pressure.

The EU is, in fact, the world’s most generous supplier of vaccines. While U.S. President Joe Biden has said his country will not export vaccines until the American population has been inoculated, and India is reportedly pausing exports for similar reasons, Europe has so far authorized the export of 43 million doses – including 6.6 million to Canada.

Meanwhile, the EU’s own vaccine rollout has been hampered by AstraZeneca, which cut promised deliveries to Europe by half in the first quarter of this year.

This started as a fight between Britain and the EU, and it may remain that. But the EU’s proposed rules open the door to the possibility of more, and worse.

The EU’s main concern in approving exports is whether its own needs are being met. Its proposed rules also say it will consider whether the destination country exports vaccines to Europe, and the state of the pandemic in the destination country, “in particular its epidemiological situation, its vaccination rate and its access to vaccines.”

Canada doesn’t manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, so the reciprocity concern is moot. As well, Canada’s access to vaccines would be devastated if the EU blocked our imports. And Canada’s vaccination rate is even lower than the EU’s. Those things presumably work in our favour.

On the other hand, Canada’s rate of daily new cases is less than a third of that of the EU, meaning its “epidemiological situation” is better than Europe’s. In March, Italy invoked EU powers to block the export of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca to Australia partly on those grounds. Since then, other expected shipments to Australia have not moved. This week, Australia’s Health Department Secretary, Brendan Murphy, said that, despite his country’s best diplomatic efforts, “we have no expectation that we will get [European] AstraZeneca any time soon.”

The EU’s new export rules might not be intended to target Canada, but pressure on European politicians could turn this country into collateral damage.

Which would leave Canada with few options. The Trudeau government made the choice last year to rely solely on vaccine imports. It didn’t follow the path chosen by Australia, which is producing domestic doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and which will soon be churning out one million a week.

Canada has no such insurance policy.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.