As the Canadian vaccine supply expands, the federal government is considering a plan to defer some deliveries for its future use, rather than making any immediate plans to donate to needy countries.
In recent days, countries such as France, the United States, Norway, New Zealand and Spain have all announced that they will begin redistributing vaccines to poorer countries, where doses are desperately needed. In Canada, though, Ottawa is suggesting that Health Canada needs to approve more shots before any can be donated.
About 33 per cent of the Canadian population has received at least one vaccine dose, and enough vaccines are expected to arrive by the end of July to fully immunize every Canadian who qualifies, according to calculations by The Globe and Mail based on government data. The federal government is expecting that tens of millions more doses will arrive by the end of September.
By contrast, more than 120 of the world’s lower-income countries – largely dependent on the non-profit COVAX program – have received enough vaccines for only about 0.6 per cent of their populations so far. Crucial exports from the biggest COVAX supplier, an Indian company, have been diverted to that country’s domestic needs as the pandemic grows much deadlier there, delaying its shipments to the global program.
Groups such as the World Health Organization have been urging higher-income countries to bridge the gap by beginning the immediate sharing of their vaccine supplies. It estimates that 81 per cent of the world’s vaccines so far have gone to high-income or upper-middle-income countries, while only 0.3 per cent have gone to low-income countries – some of which are unlikely to be able to immunize their population until 2023 or 2024.
While other countries have responded to the WHO’s call for help, federal officials say Canada is not ready to do so yet.
“Regarding potential excess doses, our government is currently considering various options. These include the donation of doses to other countries as well as deferring the delivery of vaccines to later quarters in order to meet potential future needs,” Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in a statement to The Globe.
Since last year, the federal government has championed its role in the international COVAX program. Faced with criticism that it was hoarding vaccines, Ottawa has defended itself by pledging to donate the shots it doesn’t need.
“As Canada gets vaccinated, if we have more vaccines than necessary, absolutely, we will be sharing with the world,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CTV’s Question Period in a year-end interview in December.
But five months into the country’s vaccination campaign and with more clarity on Canada’s vaccine delivery timelines, the country has yet to detail any plans to donate excess doses.
“There is no update for now as Canada is not currently in a position to confirm any potential surplus of COVID-19 vaccines,” said Louis Bélanger, a spokesperson for International Development Minister Karina Gould.
The federal government’s own figures show that the country expects to have excess supply before the summer is over.
Among the four approved vaccines from Health Canada, the federal government has purchased a total of 125.9 million shots. By the end of June, more than 48 million doses are expected to be shipped to Canada, meaning all eligible people will have access to their first shot and more than 50 per cent of people will have access to their second.
Ottawa’s latest commitment is that Canada will receive at least 100 million doses by the end of September. Based on that total, The Globe’s calculations suggest that Canada can expect to receive enough vaccine by the end of July to fully vaccinate everyone who qualifies.
The government has also struck a contract to acquire millions of booster shots for future years. It announced last month that it will buy 35 million Pfizer booster shots for 2022 and a further 30 million for 2023.
Despite the clear indications that there will be excess shots in Canada by August, the government is keeping mum on what it plans to do with the doses.
“I am encouraged that the conversation is shifting to consider what Canada will do with the expected excess vaccines five months from now,” Ms. Anand said in a statement on Friday. “However, I continue to be focused on accelerating the delivery of as many vaccines as possible now,”
Even though Canada is already expecting an excess of tens of millions of additional shots, Mr. Bélanger suggested that details on vaccine donations to the world’s poorest countries will only come when Canada approves more vaccines.
“We expect to have a better sense of any potential supply in excess of Canada’s needs as more candidates are reviewed by Health Canada for authorization,” he said.
Health Canada is currently conducting a rolling review of COVID-19 vaccine candidates from Novavax and Medicago. The federal government signed contracts for those two shots and another from Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline.
Adding those vaccine candidates to the total number of doses that Canada has purchased brings the number of shots to 249.9 million, not including the Pfizer booster doses. The vast majority are two-dose shots.
Around the world, a growing number of countries are announcing details of their vaccine-sharing plans. The United States said last week that it will send up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries when regulators have approved it. France is donating 500,000 vaccine doses to COVAX, and New Zealand is donating 1.6 million doses to the program.
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