Skip to main content

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Jan. 7, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Now we know. When there is a global crisis like a pandemic, there will be an international rush to obtain the things that will alleviate it, like vaccines, so importing those things will be hard. And borders matter.

We can argue over the question of how obvious that should have been a year ago, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was, like most governments, scrambling to import masks from the United States or China.

But it was much harder to figure out what to do when the issue was getting the still-undiscovered COVID-19 vaccines.

There wasn’t a lot of vaccine manufacturing in Canada. There wasn’t any production of mRNA vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines now used for COVID-19. Before December, no mRNA vaccine had ever been commercially approved.

Getting the jab done: When can Canadians expect to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

When will Canada’s general vaccination for COVID-19 begin? The federal and provincial rollout plans so far

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

So when Providence Therapeutics, a Calgary company, applied last April to have the feds back rapid development of an mRNA vaccine that would actually be produced in Canada, there were reasons why it didn’t seem so obvious. The company’s chief executive Brad Sorenson said they were at the same stage of development as Moderna but didn’t get the full-on, $30-million-plus backing to run the same race.

There were reasons to doubt. It was then an unproven kind of vaccine technology. Officials thought Providence was too small to bet on, Mr. Sorenson said in an interview.

But now we know: It is worthwhile to gamble more on made-in-Canada vaccines.

That’s important to recognize even though it will not alleviate the immediate shortage. There might be another pandemic one day, but in the nearer future there’s still a good chance we will need new vaccines for COVID-19 and its new strains.

Once, it seemed simple enough to depend on the global free flow of goods to get vaccines. Just buy them. Now Canada’s vaccination rate is lagging several countries we see as peers, and there are angry questions about procurement.

But beyond that debate, we now know something for sure: Scarce vaccines don’t flow freely across borders.

Pfizer isn’t shipping its vaccines across the border to Canada from its U.S. plant, but from Belgium. When they had to cut production there, Canada’s shipments were cut more deeply than European supplies. The EU has considered restricting vaccine exports, and last week even triggered a clause allowing them to prevent vaccines flowing into Northern Ireland, before backtracking. Some importers beat out others, such as Israel, which paid more and agreed to hand over its citizens’ health data. But it was a scramble.

Mr. Trudeau’s government adopted a strategy of ordering from many companies, which his advisers thought of as putting a chip on every square. In retrospect, it didn’t gamble enough on domestic production.

That’s not to say there was no such bets. The CanSino vaccine project with China was supposed to see a vaccine produced in Canada from Chinese building blocks but then those building blocks never arrived – in what looks like a particularly malicious piece of vaccine nationalism.

Which brings us back to Providence. Last April, they applied for federal backing to develop an mRNA vaccine. Messenger RNA is seen as a groundbreaking approach, but at the time, no mRNA vaccine was in commercial use. Canadian officials decided to place orders, but with bigger, foreign firms. Moderna had never brought a commercial product to market, but it had a huge market cap.

“The feedback that I got was that we’re too small and we’re too new,” Mr. Sorenson said. “We’ve already checked the box for messenger RNA by going out and purchasing from these other companies.”

Mr. Sorenson said he doesn’t really blame the government, because big companies were promising to deliver. Providence did eventually get linked with the National Research Council, which provided up to $4.7-million, but that was essentially walking rather than running.

But now, there is a Canadian mRNA vaccine developer, planning to make the vaccines in Canada, in conjunction with another firm, Northern RNA. They are developing mRNA infrastructure in Canada.

Maybe that won’t save us in the next global crisis, but there’s a good bet that kind of next-generation infrastructure will be useful.

“Do we want that capacity within our borders, and do we want to be a player on the international stage?” Mr. Sorenson asked. At one time, it might have seemed like that was an unneeded gamble. Now we should know better.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.