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PnuVax is reflected in the sideview mirror as the National Research Council Canada can be seen ahead in Montreal, Que. on Nov. 30, 2020.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Domestically producing and supplying a COVID-19 vaccine would not have sped up Canada’s vaccination timeline and wasn’t possible before the end of 2021, the co-chair of Canada’s vaccine task force said Thursday.

Mark Lievonen told the House of Commons industry committee that the international supply chains which Canada is relying on to inoculate the population were the only option for the country.

“Canadian production all makes sense to pursue, particularly in the medium term, but they would not be part of the solution for 2021,” Mr. Lievonen told MPs on the committee.

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The supply of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines from plants in Europe was repeatedly cut in January and February, leading to a faltering start to Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Against that backdrop, academics and private pharmaceutical companies have said that Canada could have done more to create a domestic supply option.

Montreal-based bio manufacturing company PnuVax Inc. has said it could already be making vaccines, while Calgary-based vaccine developer Providence Therapeutics said it could start making the shots this year. Their proposals have not been accepted by the federal government.

Mr. Lievonen, the former president of Sanofi Pasteur Ltd., told MPs there was no domestic option that would have led to a quicker result or outpaced the international supply.

“I don’t think anything could have been done, in terms of supplying vaccines between now and the end of September, there is not a domestic solution that could have sped that up,” he said. He noted the complexities of negotiating a licensing deal and then the technical requirements needed to prepare a facility to start producing and supplying the shots.

His comments raise more questions about the high expectations for domestic production that the federal government set last year.

From March to August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-industry minister Navdeep Bains repeatedly set the expectation that Canada would begin producing hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines in 2020 and even more in mid-2021. However, plans for 2020 production fell apart because the National Research Council’s plans for a temporary clinical-trial facility didn’t meet good manufacturing practices.

Completion for that facility was first pushed back to mid-2021, however, the NRC is no longer releasing any timeline for it.

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“We will provide an update on the progress to date and revised milestones for the completion of the facility once the plan is final,” spokesman Matthew Ellis said Thursday.

Plans for a second facility at the same NRC campus in Montreal are also delayed. In August, Mr. Trudeau said it would be “up and running by mid-2021.” But this month the NRC said full production at the new facility will start after engineering runs that are scheduled for December, 2021.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail after his Thursday’s committee appearance, Mr. Lievonen said the task force focused its recommendations to the government on what it should do and it never directly said domestic production couldn’t be part of the immediate vaccine plan.

“We didn’t tell them what not to do, we provided advice on what they should do,” he said.

On Thursday, the officials in charge of Canada’s vaccination campaign said March will mark the turning point in the vaccine rollout with a steady supply of shots expected from both Moderna and Pfizer. Even larger deliveries will start arriving in April.

Relying solely on the shots from Moderna and Pfizer, the Public Health Agency of Canada said 14.5 million people will be able to get the two-shot vaccines by the end of June. The agency said 24.5 million people could get their shots before July if the vaccine candidates from Novavax, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are approved by Health Canada.

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Whether or not those three shots are authorized, the agency said Canada will receive more shots than is needed for the entire population by the end of September.

The initial COVID-19 vaccinations in Canada and around the world raise questions about how people react to the shot, how pregnant women should approach it and how far away herd immunity may be. Globe health reporter Kelly Grant and science reporter Ivan Semeniuk discuss the answers. The Globe and Mail

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