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Toronto's Mass Vaccination Clinic on Jan. 17, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The federal government’s plans for a mass-vaccination campaign to start in April were thrown off when Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines sooner than expected, leaving Ottawa scrambling to secure vaccines earlier with little success.

At issue are the delivery schedules established in contracts last summer, before it was clear when an effective vaccine would be ready or authorized, a senior government official told The Globe and Mail.

On Aug. 5, Ottawa announced its advance purchase agreements with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The contracts, which have not been made public, focused on large-scale shipments after April 1, because the federal government had been told by the companies that no large supplies would be available before then, according to the official. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the contract details.

The official said federal negotiators pushed to acquire as many doses as possible in December after the Pfizer Inc. and Moderna vaccines got regulatory approval. But while they were able to move delivery of about 400,000 doses into December, Pfizer and Moderna would agree to provide only four million and two million respectively before March 31.

Canada is among the world’s leaders in purchases per capita of COVID-19 vaccines, but it has struggled to get the shots delivered. As a result, the country’s inoculation rate continues to slip compared to its peer countries.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand has frequently noted that the government was contending with uncertainty when it negotiated contracts with the drug makers. It was unclear at the time when an effective vaccine could be developed, approved and mass-produced.

Citing that uncertainty, Ms. Anand told reporters on Dec. 15 that the government negotiated quarterly deliveries “on the basis of the estimated time frame for the development of a vaccine and Health Canada approval.” She did not specify when in 2021 Canada estimated the vaccines would be ready.

However, charts released by the government show that for vaccines awaiting approval this month, Ottawa has not yet negotiated delivery before April.

The government has kept the contracts with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna and the five other vaccine suppliers secret. The United States and the European Union have released some contracts. The lack of information means Canadians do not know what assurances, if any, Canada negotiated and whether the federal government is enforcing the contracts.

However, the official said Ottawa’s strategy was to deliver the earliest doses possible from drug companies facing intense demand from around the world. Drug companies insisted on quarterly deliveries, and are not required to meet specific weekly deadlines, the official said.

Complicating matters are the exclusivity deals the White House negotiated with Pfizer and Moderna: The first doses the pharmaceutical giants make in the United States will stay there – cutting Canada off from its closest manufacturing source and forcing it to rely on plants in Europe.

Those deliveries have been plagued by delays as Moderna and Pfizer retool to increase their European production. But because of the quarterly delivery schedules, there are no penalties for the recent cut in shipments.

Despite the short-term delivery cuts, the Trudeau government is confident Pfizer and Moderna will deliver on their six million commitment by March 31, the official said.

In talks with the vaccine makers last year, the federal government tried to avoid this situation, but could not persuade any company to make its shots in Canada, Ms. Anand told a House of Commons committee on Thursday. She said they rejected Canada’s request because the country’s biomanufacturing capacity was “too limited.”

“We took this issue up with suppliers at every turn,” she said.

Ms. Anand said her department repeatedly asked the drug-makers to reconsider. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a domestic manufacturing deal with Novavax. Production will begin months after the government’s September deadline to inoculate all Canadians who want to receive the vaccine.

Mr. Trudeau and his senior ministers and officials have sought to reassure Canadians they will see a steady increase starting in April. Twenty million Pfizer and Moderna doses will be delivered between then and June, with the potential for more shots if others are authorized. The official said the government is confident in that timeline.

However, Paul Lucas, former chief executive officer of GlaxoSmithKline in Canada, says the government didn’t adequately plan for a possible early approval.

“They assumed they wouldn’t get approval and wouldn’t need the vaccine until the second quarter. They went on the assumption that they wouldn’t need vaccines until April,” he said. “No one can use the excuse that there wasn’t enough doses, because the U.K. and the U.S. both had massive amounts of vaccines delivered in December.”

The deals with Moderna and Pfizer were the first Canada reached. That means the government had the least amount of information heading into talks in which the vaccine-makers had the leverage, said Olaf Koester, with OHWK Business Management Advisory. Mr. Koester consults on pharmaceutical policy and market access, and was a director at Manitoba Health.

Canada was contending with “extremely difficult” negotiations, he said, due to other countries’ secrecy on pricing, the uncertainty in the regulatory process and how long mass-manufacturing would take.

He said it’s likely manufacturers did not guarantee supply in the contracts. Given the uncertainties, he said, “manufacturers are going to protect themselves.”

The contract signed between AstraZeneca and the European Union, for example, requires the drug maker only to “use its best reasonable efforts” to supply Europe with its initial doses.

Once Canada had negotiated the first few contracts for COVID-19 vaccines, Mr. Koester said, leverage would have swung to the federal government.

With reports from The Canadian Press.

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