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.
“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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