Skip to main content

Canadians woke up on Groundhog Day to a scene that keeps repeating itself over and over in 2021: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing a new COVID-19 initiative that’s a day late and a loonie short.

First there was Ottawa’s announcement in early January that anyone flying to Canada would have to produce a negative COVID-19 test in order to board their flight – a rule that should have been introduced long ago.

Then came the news last week that people flying into Canada will have to pay for COVID-19 testing on their arrival, hole up in a hotel at their expense while awaiting the results, and then do a supervised 14-day quarantine at home if they test negative. Good idea, but months too late.

And now comes the announcement that Canada has signed a deal with U.S. pharma company Novavax to start producing doses of a yet-to-be-approved COVID-19 vaccine at a yet-to-be-completed federal facility in Montreal.

It has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? Had Ottawa implemented its latest border controls last year, there is a good chance that, combined with provincial public-health measures, they would have reduced the spread of COVID-19 in Canada. Early border measures would also have greatly reduced the importation of several more contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus first discovered in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, which have now been imported here.

But Ottawa didn’t act to bring in effective travel restrictions until last month. It’s as if the Trudeau government can’t grapple with the problem in front of it, until it’s too late.

Tuesday’s vaccine announcement is the same. It comes so late in the game – it is essentially a plan to deliver vaccines after the game is supposed to be over – that it will have more of an impact on the next pandemic, should one ever occur, than on the current one.

That’s not to say it has no long-term value. Given the repeated delays from manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, and the European Union’s threat to block exports, it’s clear that Canada needs to be able to produce its own vaccines. It’s a matter of national security, and national health.

But when it comes to addressing the current emergency, what the Trudeau government announced on Tuesday is meaningless.

The National Research Council (NRC) lab in Montreal where the Novavax vaccine is to be made won’t be up and running until December. That’s too late to address the current shortage of vaccines. And it’s too late to help fulfill Mr. Trudeau’s promise to vaccinate every Canadian who wants a shot by September.

In response to a crisis in 2021, Mr. Trudeau has put forward a plan for action in 2022.

And the PM’s Tuesday announcement was even more disingenuous than that. He ignored the fact that his government once promised to have at least some domestic vaccine production rolling in Canada by last December, and that the NRC said last year that its Montreal facility would be fully operational by July.

There have also been questions about why Ottawa declined to use an existing private manufacturing facility in Montreal, the president of which said last year could have been put into action quickly; why it insisted on going with a public lab that is still under construction; why it took until this month to find a partner to work with that lab; and why it has not reached licensing deals with other manufacturers to produce vaccines domestically.

In fact, there has been no transparency about the government’s vaccine manufacturing strategy. All anyone can say for sure is that Tuesday’s announcement will have zero impact on the critical period between now and the end of September – which Ottawa needs to focus on.

There are 240 days between Feb. 2 and Sept. 30. To put two doses in every Canadian arm in that timeframe means the country will have to deliver more than 300,000 vaccines per day, every day.

Last week, Canada averaged fewer than 20,000 vaccinations a day – a pace that will likely continue for some time, thanks to delayed deliveries from Pfizer and Moderna, and the fact no other vaccine has been approved here yet.

The country’s early vaccination rollout is collapsing. Mr. Trudeau’s announcement about possible domestic production, in some very distant future, is nothing but a distraction.

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

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe