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One of the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine doses in Canada sits ready for use at The Michener Institute in Toronto on Dec. 14, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

A cut in the number of vaccine doses that Pfizer-BioNTech is shipping to Canada will be deeper and last longer than expected, the federal government said Thursday.

Major-General Dany Fortin, head of Canada’s pandemic vaccine logistics, said that, in all, shipments from Pfizer have been cut over five weeks, rather than four as previously announced. The result is that Canada is expecting to get 56 per cent fewer doses from Jan. 18 to Feb. 21.

On Jan. 15, the federal government announced shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine would temporarily slow down while Pfizer retools its Belgian manufacturing plant to ramp up production. At the time, Ottawa said deliveries would drop by half over four weeks, which would mean 576,225 fewer doses. The new 56-per-cent cut over five weeks translates to 844,925 fewer doses.

The federal government and Pfizer both say the drop in deliveries will be offset by the end of March, when a total of four million doses will be delivered. However, a dispute in how the doses are counted has left the provinces questioning that promise.

News about the delays came on a day when Canada’s ranking for vaccinations per capita slipped compared with other countries, according to Our World in Data website. On Jan. 8, it was ranked 10th by the Oxford University-based group. As of Thursday, it was 21st, behind countries including Poland, Germany and the United States.

The provinces have repeatedly extended the interval between the vaccine’s two shots beyond the recommended 21 days, in part because of the shipment delays.

Based on clinical trial data, a federal advisory panel said health officials can stretch the interval up to 42 days. However, as more details emerge about new variants of the coronavirus, some researchers are concerned that holding back a second dose increases the odds a variant will slip through as the immunity from a first dose wanes. Instead of reducing infection rates, a delayed second dose could increase the risk.

“Essentially, you are experimenting on the entire population,” said Theodora Hatziioannou, a virologist at Rockefeller University in New York who has been studying vaccines’ ability to handle the variants.

The latest setbacks come amid confusion on how the doses are counted. Pfizer wants Health Canada to start counting six doses for each vial of COVID-19 vaccine, rather than five. The change would mean the company can send about 17 per cent fewer vials to Canada and still meet its contractual obligations.

The pharmaceutical giant has already factored the change into its planning figures. However, because Health Canada hasn’t yet accepted that change, numbers the Public Health Agency of Canada sent to the provinces show Canada would get 3.5 million doses by the end of March instead of four million.

At a news conference on Thursday, federal officials struggled to explain the situation, and no cabinet minister was available to answer questions. Procurement Minister Anita Anand’s office did not reply to an interview request.

“The rub is the numbers don’t add up to four million at this time. Those numbers will be adjusted,” said Maj.-Gen. Fortin. “We’re doing the math with five doses per vial. Pfizer is doing the math with six doses per vial.”

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

Health Canada spokesperson Eric Morrissette on Thursday said a decision will be made in “due course.” The European Union and the United States have approved Pfizer’s change.

No matter what the decision is, Pfizer spokesperson Christina Antoniou said the company will fulfill its supply commitments “in accordance with Health Canada approved labeling.”

“We are optimistic and feel this label update will enable the most efficient use of the vaccine in order to protect more of the eligible Canadian population in a timely manner,” Ms. Antoniou said in a statement.

The provinces are getting the Pfizer doses, while the territories receive the easier-to-transport vaccine from Moderna. The regulator has already told the provinces they can pull six doses from a Pfizer vial when it’s possible. But to consistently do so, medical staff need specialized syringes that face a global supply crunch. Even with those syringes, the provinces have reported varying reliability.

Manitoba is basing its number of doses on getting six from every vial, but Alberta said in the best-case scenario, it can extract six doses per vial about 75 per cent of the time. Retired general Rick Hillier, who leads Ontario’s vaccine logistics, said staff can withdraw a sixth dose 80 per cent of the time in some batches. He told CBC’s Power and Politics the province doesn’t have enough syringes to ensure six doses from every vial.

“We can’t count on a sixth dose,” he said.

Pfizer has said health authorities will need six low-dead-space syringes for each vial. It has not released data to show how reliably this is done. The specialized syringe is designed to limit the amount of space between the plunger and the needle, which reduces the amount of vaccine that is wasted after an injection.

The federal government ordered 37.5 million low-dead-space syringes, and the first two million will arrive next week, Marc-André Charbonneau, a spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Canada, said Thursday.

The confusion led to a chaotic day in federal-provincial relations, with conservative premiers criticizing Ottawa and the drug company. “Pfizer has let us down tremendously,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said.

Alberta’s Health Minister, Tyler Shandro, rejected the idea of changing from five to six doses, and said the federal government has failed to manage the vaccine program.

“Ottawa continues to fail us, and fail all Albertans,” he said. “This is a grim situation that seems to be getting worse with every passing week.”

According to the Angus Reid Institute, the number of people who think Ottawa is doing a poor job with the vaccine nearly doubled since December: to 44 per cent from 23 per cent. The number of people who think Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is doing a good job slipped to 36 per cent from 47 per cent, the poll said.

The online survey of 1,559 people does not have a reported margin of error.

With reports from Ivan Semeniuk, Laura Stone and Les Perreaux

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