Last June, as the pandemic’s first wave receded, AstraZeneca was building a global supply chain to make a COVID-19 vaccine developed at the University of Oxford. The company announced a deal to provide 400 million doses to a group of European countries and also said it was “seeking to expand manufacturing capacity further.”
At the time, Canada’s newly formed COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force was assessing which of the many vaccines under development were promising enough to warrant placing advance orders. It was also asked to “facilitate solutions to manufacture the most promising COVID-19 vaccines in Canada.”
Eight months later, Ottawa has agreements to import vaccines from multiple overseas manufacturers. But those vaccines are arriving slowly, and vaccine protectionism has been on the rise. Shipments from Europe have been repeatedly delayed, while the United States, even in the post-Trump era, is keeping its production for its citizens.
As for whatever attempts Ottawa made to establish domestic production, they came to nothing. There will be no vaccine produced in Canada until at least the end of 2021.
Canada has vaccinated a smaller percentage of the population than about 40 other countries, with just 3 per cent of Canadians having received at least one shot as of Feb. 9, compared with 13.1 per cent in the U.S, 19.4 per cent in Britain and world-leading Israel at 67.4 per cent.
On Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the developing country will “do its best” to help Canada. It’s not clear whether he was being diplomatic or trolling the Trudeau government. It was humiliating either way.
It all highlights the question of whether Canada could have done more to manufacture a vaccine locally. Canada bet heavily on buying an array of vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and others. At the time, it seemed like the right move, and it will deliver the goods – eventually. But right now, Canadians are stuck waiting for shipments.
Could this country have given itself more security of supply by having some vaccines produced in Canada?
Ottawa tried to make domestic vaccine manufacturing a reality, but so far, that’s been a flop. Last spring, Ottawa announced a $44-million upgrade at the National Research Council in Montreal, to be ready by last November. Promised production was to be a small but useful 250,000 vaccine doses a month, part of a deal with China’s CanSino. But the CanSino deal quickly collapsed and last October, the NRC admitted its upgrades were far from ready. In a separate move last August, Ottawa gave $126-million to build a new facility at NRC in Montreal. But it won’t be ready until late this year, when it aims to start making two million doses a month of the Novavax vaccine.
That eventual capacity will be welcome, given the possible need for future booster vaccinations and the unknown impact of virus variants. But it will have zero impact on this year’s vaccination campaign.
It’s worth noting that many other countries are or will soon be making supply for the Oxford vaccine or the shots themselves, under agreements with AstraZeneca. The list of 16 includes a range from Australia and Britain to Mexico, Argentina, India and Thailand.
Why not Canada? The Trudeau government says it asked vaccine makers to manufacture here but all declined. In the case of AstraZeneca, whose vaccine is more traditional than the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, it told The Globe that it concluded the fastest and cheapest way to get its shots to Canadians was to manufacture overseas.
However, Canada’s southern twin, Australia, struck a different deal with AstraZeneca. The country signed a letter of intent last August, and local manufacturer CSL will make 50 million doses. Australia’s Health Minister calls this domestic production its “ace in the hole.” Could Canada have been Australia? Ottawa says no, because our vaccine industry shrank too much over the past 30 years. But some industry sources told The Globe in December that domestic manufacturing could have been ready if Ottawa had turned to the private sector, instead of relying on the federal NRC.
In a perfect world of frictionless trade and open borders, Ottawa’s strategy of 100-per-cent imports would have raised no questions. But at the moment – with only about 70,000 doses received this week from Pfizer and just 168,000 expected the week of Feb. 22 from Moderna, both smaller shipments than originally promised – Canada’s inability to make a COVID-19 vaccine has left Canadians in a vulnerable position.
This story was updated on Feb. 11 to reflect new information about Moderna’s Feb. 22 shipment.
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