Health Canada is on track to approve the first COVID-19 vaccine in mid-December, but uncertainty around delivery and distribution mean the federal government cannot yet say when Canadians will start getting their shots.
The issue has landed at the centre of an increasingly heated debate in Ottawa, with opposition parties accusing the government of failing to put a plan in place while the minority Liberals insist Canada is one of the best positioned countries to receive vaccines. The pressure on the federal government has increased steadily this week as allies such as the United States and Britain rolled out detailed plans with earlier start dates.
The hope, officials here say, is for three million Canadians to get vaccines by the end of March.
“We’re talking about January in terms of getting our first shipments in, if everything goes well,” Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, said Thursday in Ottawa. “If it goes smoothly, it might be earlier. If there are hiccups … it may be a bit later.”
Cautioning that there are “lots of moving parts,” Canada’s deputy chief public health officer Howard Njoo said “if everything goes according to plan” a majority of Canadians could get their COVID-19 vaccines by the fall.
The provinces and territories are responsible for the final logistics and vaccine administration. But to finalize their plans, a provincial source told The Globe and Mail, the premiers need more clarity on the timing of vaccine distribution as well as the expected weekly allocations.
The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the subject. The premiers held their own call to discuss the vaccine issue on Thursday before having their weekly meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The source said the timing and vaccine volume details will change everything from staffing levels to the pressure on distribution networks. However, the source said there was “no clarity” after the call with Mr. Trudeau on any of those issues and that little more information was given than what Mr. Trudeau and his ministers have been saying publicly. The source said the premiers were clear that not having this information will be a problem in the near future.
The Conservatives have contrasted the lack of details and longer timelines with the plan south of the border. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday that his country could begin shipping 6.4 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine within 24 hours of U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorization, with a goal of distributing 40 million before the end of the year.
Canada has contracts to buy the two leading vaccine candidates from Pfizer and Moderna. The FDA will review the data from Pfizer on Dec. 10 and Moderna’s shortly after. The European regulator said it hopes to approve a COVID-19 vaccine before Christmas.
Dr. Sharma said the Canadian regulator is aiming to provide an interim authorization for the vaccines around the same time as its American and European counterparts.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said Canadians should expect a slower vaccine rollout than the countries that manufacture the vaccines, because Canada doesn’t have its own manufacturing capacity. However, Pamela Fralick, the president of Innovative Medicines Canada, the industry group for brand-name drugmakers, pointed out in an interview Thursday that Canada does, in fact, have significant vaccine production capacity. However, the facilities aren’t equipped to produce the cutting-edge mRNA vaccines that are likely to cross the regulatory finish line first.
“Perhaps he was misinformed,” she said of the Prime Minister. “We absolutely have capacity here in Canada.” GSK Canada has an influenza vaccine manufacturing facility in Ste. Foy, Que., while Sanofi has a large vaccine manufacturing plant in North York.
Ms. Fralick said that if Canada wants more vaccines produced domestically, it should reconsider what she called an “extreme” overhaul to the country’s drug-pricing regulations, which take effect Jan. 1. The changes are designed to lower Canada’s brand-name drug prices, which are among the highest in the world.
Mr. Trudeau’s comments also sparked confusion and criticism from premiers.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday the Prime Minister’s comments were “very concerning, and very disappointing.” In response, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu sought to reassure Canadians that “we’re well positioned to be able to deliver vaccines in early 2021.”
A complex domino effect of supply chains and the readiness of countries to accept the vaccines means its not possible to say how much longer Canada will have to wait than other countries, said Alan Bernstein, a member of Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. But he said to ensure that wait is as short as possible, Canada should focus on what it can control: approving vaccines, putting in place the proper cold storage to safely transport and hold the vaccines and establishing a clear plan for who will get vaccinated first and where.
“We’re not going to get the vaccines until those are in place,” Dr. Bernstein, the chief executive of the global research organization CIFAR said. “If you’re a manufacturer and the whole world wants these vaccines, you have to decide who to send it to first, second and third. So why would you send it to a country that hasn’t got their house in order.”
The federal government is procuring the specialized equipment needed to store and transport the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be kept at -70 C, but it has not yet detailed how the vaccines will be distributed. “We can expect some logistical challenges ahead,” Dr. Njoo said, adding that more details will be released in what will now be a weekly briefing dedicated to the vaccine campaign.
Christina Antoniou, a spokeswoman for Pfizer Canada, said the company’s shots will be delivered in just-in-time fashion directly to the places where they’ll be distributed. She said Canada was the fourth country to seal a deal with Pfizer after the U.S., Britain and Japan.
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained the wrong location for Sanofi’s vaccine plant.