The federal government is not releasing its cost estimates for a potential COVID-19 vaccine – nor saying how much it is offering pharmaceutical companies to secure a supply – even as the U.S. makes public the financial details of a “warp speed” effort to launch a successful vaccine by January.
Many countries are announcing pre-orders with manufacturers to ensure access for their citizens to any successful vaccine. In the past month, Canada has announced deals with Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc., Johnson & Johnson and Novavax Inc. The federal government says revealing financial information about these deals now would compromise negotiations with other pharmaceutical companies. It has also not revealed how much it is budgeting for vaccine purchases.
In contrast, the U.S. government’s “Operation Warp Speed” aims to secure a vaccine supply by January, 2021, and has made public the value of its initial payments to pharmaceutical companies as deals are reached. For instance, it announced $446-million for Johnson & Johnson in March, followed by $483-million for Moderna in April and up to $1.2-billion for AstraZeneca in May.
The funding agreements, some of which were later expanded, generally support clinical trials and secure U.S. access to specific amounts of vaccine doses if trials are successful.
University of Alberta health economist Christopher McCabe said the U.S. disclosures undercut Canada’s argument that such information must be kept secret. He said that as other countries release details, the benefit of secrecy to Canadian negotiators lessens.
“For a little while, it makes sense,” he said. “But over time, it becomes a less convincing justification.”
Reports have suggested a wide range of potential costs per dose for a successful vaccine, and more than one dose may be required, which Prof. McCabe said would mean a total price tag for Canada in the billions. The cost could lead to disputes between the provinces and Ottawa over how to pay, he said.
The federal government announced deals with Moderna and Pfizer on Aug. 5 and Johnson & Johnson and Novavax on Aug. 31. The four deals would cover up to 190 million doses of vaccine.
Cecely Roy, a spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand, said the government will eventually release contract details, as it did with its purchases of personal protective equipment. She also said that the terms of the agreements vary and include some advance payments. A portion of advance payments may be recovered should a vaccine not receive Health Canada approval.
“We will [release financial details] when doing so will not undermine Canada’s negotiating position with additional leading vaccine developers and when we would not be in violation of any applicable confidentiality agreements with suppliers, and therefore potentially jeopardize access to vaccines for Canadians,” the office said.
“Like the incredibly competitive market for PPE and medical supplies within which we were operating in the early months of the pandemic to secure these life-saving goods, we are now operating in a highly competitive environment for vaccines. ... When we are able to, we will provide details on the value of Canada’s vaccine agreements.”
Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who is now president and chief executive officer of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, said the government should release more information.
“Parliament and Canadians will want to know that they are not being subject to price gouging by private-sector companies and are co-ordinating with international partners on purchases and distribution,” he said in an e-mail. “If the government’s argument is that they will not release information on signed contracts because it will compromise ongoing negotiations, this could be a signal that the government already believes it has paid too much on early contracts.”
Mr. Page said the government should release a budget in the fall that outlines its plans for vaccination and costing.
Conservative and NDP MPs are also raising concerns over the lack of financial information.
“They’ve just bungled this vaccine procurement from the start,” Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux said, pointing to the fact that other countries moved more quickly to get agreements. “Not only are we falling behind, but we’re not even being transparent about how much we’re paying and how much this is gouging the Canadian taxpayer.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus said the recent WE Charity controversy has eroded Canadians’ trust in federal contracts.
“The government needs to be on notice that the money that they’re spending in a pandemic is an unprecedented amount of money,” he said. “The money has to go out the door fast, but it has to follow the rules so that the Canadian interests are put first and not just people who know people in the government. Not just the power of the lobbyists.”
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