Canada will not receive any new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer next week, leading provinces to slow down their vaccination programs again and adding more uncertainty to their planning.
Rather than the previously reported 75-per-cent cut to vaccine shipments from the pharmaceutical giant next week, Major-General Dany Fortin said they will now come to a full stop.
“Next week’s deliveries have been deferred by Pfizer in their entirety,” Maj.-Gen. Fortin, who is leading Canada’s vaccine logistics, told reporters at a virtual news conference on Tuesday. There will be a “significant decline in Pfizer supply over the next three weeks,” he said.
The delays are needed for Pfizer to retool its Belgian plant so that it can expand production for the long term, the company said. But while European Union member countries are only contending with a one-week slowdown in shipments from the facility, Canada faces a much longer delay. The 100-per-cent cut to shipments next week coincides with Pfizer’s decision to reinstate the original shipment schedule for European countries starting on Jan. 25.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also held a press conference Tuesday but the government waited to release news of the latest vaccine setback until after his availability ended. He told reporters that despite early problems with Pfizer’s deliveries, “all Canadians will be able to be vaccinated by September, 2021.”
Instead of the ramp-up in deliveries promised by Mr. Trudeau in early January, provinces are contending with projected declines that have changed twice in less than one week.
On Friday, Ottawa had said that between Jan. 25 and Feb. 21 overall shipments from Pfizer would be cut in half, with a varying impact each week.
The latest complication on Tuesday caught provinces by surprise and came within hours of Ontario releasing its overhauled vaccination plan to account for the first set of changes announced Friday. The impact was made clear within hours: Toronto announced the closure of its mass-vaccination clinic just one day after it opened and B.C. said it would cancel some first-shot appointments.
At issue isn’t just the immediate changes provinces will have to make, but also the more cautious approach the uncertainty will force over the long term, said David Naylor, co-chair of the federal government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. Without a reliable supply chain that will guarantee the delivery of the critical second shot of the vaccine, Dr. Naylor said governments will start “holding back a lot of doses and we will go slower.”
“It’s a major glitch to have no flow whatsoever,” Dr. Naylor said Tuesday, adding that he believes the responsibility for the delay lies with Pfizer. While the delay is a source of frustration for the general population, he said it has the potential for a much higher toll on people in long-term care.
“If we’re slow getting vaccines into those people, there is a risk of life,” he said.
Shipments of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine are still continuing and are scheduled to arrive in Canada every three weeks. Of the six million doses that Canada is purchasing until March, two million are coming from Moderna and four million are coming from Pfizer.
Procurement Minister Anita Anand said Canada will still get all four million doses from Pfizer promised by the end of March.
Ms. Anand told reporters that it was up to Pfizer to explain the difference in delays between Canada and the EU. In a statement Tuesday, Pfizer said it would “balance out by the end of Q1 2021.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he didn’t blame Ottawa, but if he were in the Prime Minister’s shoes, he’d be on the phone with Pfizer’s CEO daily, pushing for more doses. “I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker, he wouldn’t know what hit him,” Mr. Ford said.
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to say when the last time was that Mr. Trudeau spoke with Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both said they are in direct contact with Mr. Bourla. In Israel, 31.15 people per 100 have received a shot, according to Our World in Data. In Canada that stat sits at just 1.6 people per 100.
When asked what his role is in the government’s efforts to procure vaccines, Mr. Trudeau told reporters Tuesday he has reached out to top officials at vaccine companies.
“The companies are respecting the contracts that we have signed,” he said.
Quebec Premier François Legault questioned whether those contracts are strong enough. “As a former business guy, I know with this kind of contract penalty clauses are important,” he said.
The federal Conservatives and NDP called for more transparency of Canada’s delivery schedule, with New Democrats calling for the release of a monthly breakdown between now and September.
Whether the four million doses from Pfizer promised by the end of March arrive in a steady flow or are back-ended is critical to planning and to ensuring the fastest possible rollout of the shots, Dr. Naylor said.
Despite the need for certainty, Ottawa is still unable to provide updated numbers of expected doses until the end of February. Maj.-Gen. Fortin said he hoped to have more specifics from Pfizer by Thursday. In November, Pfizer said Canada would be supplied by its plants in the U.S. and Belgium. But Pfizer Canada spokesperson Christina Antoniou said Tuesday those decisions are “subject to change” and Canada is now only being supplied by the Belgian plant.
Mr. Ford issued a direct plea Tuesday to incoming U.S. president Joe Biden to send Canada one million vaccine doses from Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Mich. “That’s a direct message to President Biden – help out your neighbour. You want us all to get along, you know, hunky dory, kumbaya – help us,” Mr. Ford said. “A million vaccines to keep us going, get us over the hump. That’s what we’d love to see off the President.”
Mr. Biden has said he will ensure 100 million vaccines are administered in the U.S. in his first 100 days in office.
Ms. Antoniou said the Michigan facility is the primary source of COVID-19 vaccines for the U.S. “We anticipate no interruptions in shipments at this facility,” she said.
Neither the Public Health Agency of Canada nor Ms. Anand’s office would say whether the company has guaranteed the stop in deliveries will be limited to just one week. Ms. Antoniou said the company expects shipments will start arriving again the week of Feb. 1.
With reports from Laura Stone, Les Perreaux, Justine Hunter, James Keller and Carrie Tait.
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