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A patient receives a COVID-19 vaccination on Feb. 4, 2021 in Federal Way, Washington.

David Ryder/Getty Images

President Joe Biden plans to uphold the U.S. policy of guaranteeing that Americans will be inoculated first before the country shares its shots, despite requests for co-operation from Canada.

A Pfizer plant in Michigan was supposed to help supply vaccines to Canada. But an exclusivity deal with the U.S. government guarantees that all of its American-made doses will stay in the country until Washington’s orders are filled. Moderna has a similar arrangement regarding its plant in New Hampshire.

These contracts mean Canada has had to source vaccines from Belgium and Switzerland, leading to shortages that have thwarted Ottawa’s vaccination drive.

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A U.S. government official briefed on the White House’s vaccine rollout plans said the Biden administration has no interest in sharing U.S.-produced vaccines with Canada or any other country before all Americans have received the shots.

“It’s important that our global community is healthy,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a briefing this week. “But we’re going to focus first on ensuring the American people are vaccinated.”

We were late to learn the lesson that we’re on our own for vaccines

Now we know why we need a vaccine industry in Canada

The White House’s continuing vaccine protectionism means Ottawa cannot look to the U.S. for help as it struggles to inoculate Canadians – despite the accession of a more Canada-friendly administration in Washington.

These cross-border frustrations are indicative both of the rockier-than-expected start to Canada’s relationship with the new U.S. President, and of the country’s structural disadvantages in the race to vaccinate.

Mr. Biden also has not overturned a Dec. 8 executive order by former president Donald Trump that confirmed the promise in the Pfizer and Moderna contracts to fill U.S. contracts before exporting doses.

The U.S. government source said there are currently no plans to overturn that order. The Globe and Mail granted the official anonymity because they were not permitted to disclose the internal deliberations.

In November, Pfizer told The Globe and Mail that Canada would receive doses from the Michigan plant. But in January, the company said those plans had changed. On Thursday, Pfizer said it would continue supplying Canada solely from Belgium.

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Early shipments have been beset by delays, with a 56-per-cent cut to deliveries from Pfizer over five weeks and a yet-to-be confirmed cut to shipments from Moderna this month. The result has forced provinces and territories to slow down inoculations for some of the country’s most vulnerable: people in long-term care, remote Indigenous communities and front-line health care staff.

Pfizer and Moderna have both attributed the slowdown to challenges ramping up production. But their deliveries to the U.S. have not been affected.

Both companies are headquartered in the United States and the Trump administration plowed billions into the development of the Moderna vaccine through Operation Warp Speed. The U.S. is spending up to $5.29-billion for the development and purchase of 200 million doses from Moderna. On Pfizer, the U.S. spent about $24.80 a dose. Canada has not released any information about how much it is paying.

The agreements with the United States were the first Moderna signed, the company’s country manager for Canada Patricia Gauthier said in a statement to The Globe. The U.S. has the option to buy up to 500 million total doses.

“Moderna would be unable to sell doses from the U.S. production line while the options are still in force without violating its obligations under the terms of the contract,” Ms. Gauthier said.

The U.S. has distributed nearly 60 million shots, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. This is 50 times the number distributed in Canada, which has a population roughly one-tenth that of the U.S.

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The bilateral vaccine drama mirrors a similar situation in Europe. In that case, AstraZeneca has an exclusivity deal giving Britain first dibs on doses from British-based plants, much to the consternation of the vaccine-starved European Union.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office would not answer directly when asked whether he or his government had requested that the White House allow Canada to access U.S.-made doses. The Canadian embassy in Washington did not respond to similar questions.

But summaries of Mr. Trudeau’s calls with Mr. Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris suggest that he did ask for help. A Prime Minister’s Office summary of Mr. Trudeau’s Jan. 22 discussion with the U.S. President said the pair “discussed collaboration on vaccines.” The PMO summary of the Monday call with Ms. Harris said Mr. Trudeau raised “access to vaccines” in the chat.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand also spoke recently with Jeff Zients, whom Mr. Biden has assigned to lead his government’s response to COVID-19.

The Prime Minister is scheduled to meet with the President this month. It has not yet been decided whether the sit-down will take place in person or via video-conference.

Mr. Biden favours international engagement and free trade, in contrast with the economic nationalism of Mr. Trump. But this did not stop the new President from cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office without informing Mr. Trudeau before news of his impending announcement leaked in the media. Mr. Biden is also looking to tighten “Buy American” procurement rules.

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Jay Kaufman, an epidemiologist at McGill University, pointed to the U.S.’s numerous advantages on vaccines: extensive manufacturing within its borders, the world’s wealthiest economy and the investment in Moderna’s development efforts. “Given all of these structural and political factors, I can’t see that Canada has a lot of leverage here,” he said.

Still, Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, contended that Canada could have begun building vaccine production capacity early in the pandemic. He also said Ottawa could have streamlined its process for approving new vaccines to quickly give Canada more options. Canada, for instance, has still not approved AstraZeneca’s vaccine. “The Canadian government shot itself a bit in the foot,” he said.

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