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People arrive to receive a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Woluwe-Saint-Pierre vaccination centre in Brussels on Thursday. The site is admistering the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.Jean-Christophe Guillaume/Getty Images

Canada is about to receive an extra 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the United States, a loan that will help provinces accelerate their inoculation campaigns as the country faces a third wave of coronavirus infections.

The U.S. government has confirmed that it plans to send 1.5 million doses to Canada and another 2.5 million to Mexico. Final details, including delivery dates, are still being worked out, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that “it’s our aim” to share some of the United States’ stockpiled AstraZeneca doses with neighbouring countries through a loan arrangement.

Unlike Canadian and Mexican regulators, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine. The results of a U.S. clinical trial are expected shortly, but in the meantime, the U.S. can’t inject the millions of AstraZeneca doses it has in storage.

Canada vaccine tracker: How many COVID-19 doses have been administered so far?

Tracking Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans: A continuing guide

Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson: Which COVID-19 vaccine will I get in Canada?

Canada pre-purchased millions of doses of seven different vaccine types, and Health Canada has approved four so far for the various provincial and territorial rollouts. All the drugs are fully effective in preventing serious illness and death, though some may do more than others to stop any symptomatic illness at all (which is where the efficacy rates cited below come in).

PFIZER-BIONTECH

  • Also known as: Comirnaty
  • Approved on: Dec. 9, 2020
  • Efficacy rate: 95 per cent with both doses in patients 16 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 15-year-olds
  • Traits: Must be stored at -70 C, requiring specialized ultracold freezers. It is a new type of mRNA-based vaccine that gives the body a sample of the virus’s DNA to teach immune systems how to fight it. Health Canada has authorized it for use in people as young as 12.

MODERNA

  • Also known as: SpikeVax
  • Approved on: Dec. 23, 2020
  • Efficacy rate: 94 per cent with both doses in patients 18 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 17-year-olds
  • Traits: Like Pfizer’s vaccine, this one is mRNA-based, but it can be stored at -20 C. It’s approved for use in Canada for ages 12 and up.

OXFORD-ASTRAZENECA

  • Also known as: Vaxzevria
  • Approved on: Feb. 26, 2021
  • Efficacy rate: 62 per cent two weeks after the second dose
  • Traits: This comes in two versions approved for Canadian use, the kind made in Europe and the same drug made by a different process in India (where it is called Covishield). The National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s latest guidance is that its okay for people 30 and older to get it if they can’t or don’t want to wait for an mRNA vaccine, but to guard against the risk of a rare blood-clotting disorder, all provinces have stopped giving first doses of AstraZeneca.

JOHNSON & JOHNSON

  • Also known as: Janssen
  • Approved on: March 5, 2021
  • Efficacy rate: 66 per cent two weeks after the single dose
  • Traits: Unlike the other vaccines, this one comes in a single injection. NACI says it should be offered to Canadians 30 and older, but Health Canada paused distribution of the drug for now as it investigates inspection concerns at a Maryland facility where the active ingredient was made.

How many vaccine doses do I get?

All vaccines except Johnson & Johnson’s require two doses, though even for double-dose drugs, research suggests the first shots may give fairly strong protection. This has led health agencies to focus on getting first shots to as many people as possible, then delaying boosters by up to four months. To see how many doses your province or territory has administered so far, check our vaccine tracker for the latest numbers.

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

“After numerous discussions with the Biden administration, Canada is in the process of finalizing an exchange agreement to receive 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Unites States,” Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in a statement. “We look forward to providing an update to Canadians once the details of this agreement are finalized.”

The news that AstraZeneca shots will soon be flowing across the Canada-U.S. border came on the same day British and European medical regulators announced they have found no evidence of a connection between blood clots and the vaccine.

Both regulators say the benefits of the jab outweigh the risks.

“This is a safe and effective vaccine,” said Emer Cooke, executive director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA). “We just have to continually remind ourselves what a difficult situation we are in. This pandemic is costing lives. We have vaccines that are safe and effective, that can help prevent death and hospitalization. We need to use those vaccines.”

Regulators have been under increasing pressure to study the issue after more than a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, stopped using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine because of reports that around 40 people had developed blood clots within days of vaccination.

Germany’s Paul Ehrlich Institute, a branch of the country’s medical regulator, also reported seven cases of a rare form of clotting in a vein in the brain, which had killed three people. Britain has seen five similar cases and one death.

The EMA and Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency released reports on Thursday that found no direct link between the blood clots and the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The EMA’s study concluded that the number of cases of blood clots reported after vaccination was actually lower than expected, especially since around 20 million people in the EU and Britain have received the vaccine. “There is no increase in the overall risk of blood clots with this vaccine,” said Sabine Straus, chair of the EMA’s vaccine safety committee. She noted that in a typical year around 100,000 people across Europe develop blood clots every month.

However, Ms. Cooke said the EMA couldn’t definitively rule out a link between the vaccine and the rare cases of severe blood clotting, including cerebral clots. The committee examined 24 of these cases and couldn’t determine whether there was a connection to the vaccine. As a result, the EMA has recommended that the vaccine should carry a warning about this possible complication so that health practitioners can be on the lookout for it. Ms. Cooke said the safety committee will continue to study the issue and explore whether similar cases have occurred with other COVID-19 vaccines.

“If it was me, I would be vaccinated tomorrow,” said Ms. Cooke. “But I would want to know that if anything happened to me after vaccination what I should do about it. And that’s what we’re saying today.”

Several countries, including France, Italy and Spain, immediately announced plans to resume using the AstraZeneca vaccine and others were expected to follow suit soon. However, there have been growing fears among health experts that the controversy has damaged public confidence in immunization in general.

Developed by scientists at Oxford University, the AstraZeneca vaccine has been seen as the cornerstone of inoculation campaigns around the world and it has been authorized in dozens of countries. It’s less expensive than vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, and it’s easier to handle because it doesn’t require freezer storage.

As COVID-19 infection rates have been climbing in many parts of Europe, EU leaders have faced criticism over the slow rollout of the bloc’s vaccination drive. The EU’s program lags behind those in Britain, the United States and several other countries. Roughly 11 per cent of people across the EU have been vaccinated so far compared with nearly 40 per cent in Britain.

Canada stood behind the AstraZeneca vaccine and never ordered a pause, but confusion has nonetheless marred the domestic rollout.

The expert committee that advises the Public Health Agency of Canada on immunization policy initially recommended the vaccine not be given to people 65 or older because of a dearth of clinical trial evidence in seniors, prompting most provinces to reserve AstraZeneca shots for those between the ages of 60 and 64.

The committee reversed that decision this week, citing encouraging real-world evidence from Britain, where millions of seniors have received a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

After a slow start, Canada’s vaccination campaign is poised to ramp up dramatically, with more than two million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots arriving next week alone. But public-health officials and political leaders still say Canada needs more shots soon if it hopes to blunt the impact of a third wave driven by more transmissible variants of the coronavirus.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been publicly calling for the U.S. to share some of its doses, a step the Biden administration refused to take until now. On Thursday, Mr. Ford called the loan arrangement, “fabulous news.”

“God bless America,” he said. “They’re coming to our rescue.”

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