The federal government released all of its largest COVID-19 vaccine contracts late on Friday, but heavy redactions prevent the public from seeing much of the relevant information, including the prices per dose and the delivery schedules for the shots.
The 364-page document containing Canada’s contracts with its seven vaccine suppliers was sent to members of the House of Commons health committee, which has been studying the federal pandemic response. This is the first time the government has released any part of the contracts. Novavax Inc. released a redacted version of its contract in its U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings in March.
Opposition parties ordered the government to release the contracts as part of a sweeping document request related to the COVID-19 pandemic in October. At the time, government ministers said the release of the documents could jeopardize Canada’s ability to secure vaccines. Since then, redacted documents have been released semi-regularly to the health committee, often late on a Friday.
“There’s no reason why Canadians shouldn’t have access to details given the amount of public expenditure,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said, adding it should not have taken eight months to release the limited information.
With so much redacted from the AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax, Sanofi/GSK, Medicago, and Janssen contracts, one expert said it is impossible to know whether Canada negotiated competitive prices and what assurances it negotiated for the delivery schedules. Delayed and smaller-than-expected deliveries dramatically slowed the first phase of Canada’s vaccination campaign, but since April, the size and number of deliveries have increase significantly.
The information released in the contracts shows a “very, very partial picture,” said Matthew Herder, director of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University. “The government took every opportunity to redact as much as possible … so clearly there are things they don’t want the public seeing.
“That might be the companies that push for that, it could be the government, it could be both,” he added.
For example, the government fully or partly redacted more than 20 pages of the Moderna contract, and in several cases also withheld the terms listed in the definitions section.
“The redactions are profound and they go beyond what I have seen in a number of contracts that I’ve received through Access to Information,” Prof. Herder said.
Canada has bought 249 million doses from the seven suppliers, and has options to buy 153 million more. In April, the government pegged the total cost of its vaccine contracts at more than $9-billion, but provided no other specifics.
The unredacted parts of the contracts show that for AstraZeneca and Novavax, the government negotiated that the companies use “commercially reasonable efforts” to deliver the vaccine doses within the terms of the agreement. That performance standard is not mentioned in the unredacted sections of the Pfizer and Moderna contracts. The wording is weaker than the language used in the European Union’s AstraZeneca contract, Prof. Herder said.
Procurement Minister Anita Anand’s signature is on the contracts, but her office declined to respond to The Globe and Mail’s requests for comment and directed inquiries to the department’s media team.
Spokesperson Jeremy Link said the government worked with the companies to “secure their agreement on publicly releasable versions” of the contracts. While they are all different, he said each was negotiated with the “sole intent” of getting vaccines as quickly as possible.
In a letter to the committee’s clerk about the redactions, the Procurement Department’s assistant deputy minister, James Stott, said the documents were released in line with the requirements of the Access to Information Act.
“Applicable exemptions have been applied to the documents to protect third-party or personal information, as well as to avoid jeopardizing orders or compromising Canada’s negotiating position given the volatility of the marketplace,” Mr. Stott wrote.
Ms. Rempel Garner said experts told the health committee transparency would ensure Canada got a better deal for the shots, help dispel vaccine hesitancy, and clarify how Canada can help with the international vaccination effort, because at least some of the contracts cover the parameters in which Canada can donate surplus doses.
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