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Employees pack boxes containing vials of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine at Serum Institute of India in Pune, India, on Jan. 21, 2021.Rafiq Maqbool/The Associated Press

The Biden administration is refusing to allow AstraZeneca to export tens of millions of unused doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, despite a plea from the Canadian government to import the shots in a bid to bolster Ottawa’s lagging inoculation drive.

The U.S. has not yet authorized the British-Swedish drug-maker’s vaccine for use, but is nonetheless insisting that all shots the company produces in the country be kept off the export market. Canada and the European Union, meanwhile, have approved the vaccine, but cannot access the supply in the U.S.

Much of AstraZeneca’s American stockpile is sitting idle at a plant near Cincinnati, less than four hours’ drive from the Canadian border, at a time when Canada’s vaccine shortages have caused it to fall well behind the U.S. in administering doses. If AstraZeneca were allowed to export these shots, it could more than fill Canada’s entire contract with the drug-maker – 20 million doses – before the end of this month.

A Canadian official told The Globe and Mail that Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand has raised the issue with the U.S. government. The Globe agreed not to identify the official in order to learn the details of confidential bilateral discussions.

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

Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, said Friday that the U.S. is hoarding the doses so it can be ready to roll them out to Americans as soon as the Food and Drug Administration approves the vaccine.

“We have a small inventory of AstraZeneca so that, if approved, we can get that inventory out to the American people as quickly as possible,” he said in a briefing.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden wants to ensure all Americans are inoculated before allowing U.S.-made doses to be exported.

“At this time, there have been requests from around the world, of course, from a number of countries who have requested doses from the United States. And we have not provided doses from the U.S. government to anyone,” she told reporters.

The U.S. has also refused to allow Pfizer and Moderna to export COVID-19 vaccines to Canada from their plants in the U.S. This left Ottawa to rely on plants in Europe, which slowed production to a trickle in February as they retooled to meet the demand.

In a statement to The Globe, AstraZeneca said it would produce roughly 30 million doses in the U.S. by the end of March and another 20 million by the end of April.

According to AstraZeneca’s contract with the U.S. government, signed last May, all doses made in the U.S. are owned by the U.S. government. The company confirmed that this means the Biden administration must agree for any doses to be exported.

The drug-maker said it had encouraged the U.S. government to “give thoughtful consideration” to requests from other countries to buy the supply currently sitting unused.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not say Friday whether he had asked the White House to let Ottawa import the shots. “Over the past number of months, we’ve had lots of great engagements with the American administration on COVID-19,” he told a press conference in Ottawa.

Ms. Anand said she still expected to receive the AstraZeneca doses from the U.S. Earlier this week, she told reporters that she believed AstraZeneca would be able to fulfill its contract with Canada. The deal calls for the shots to be delivered between April and September, giving the White House several weeks to reverse its current protectionist decision.

“We have no reason to doubt that they will be coming into this country,” she said.

Mr. Biden said earlier this week that, once his country has enough vaccine in hand to inoculate all Americans, he would look at exporting shots for other countries. This raises the possibility that the White House could allow AstraZeneca to start supplying Canada from the U.S. if the American vaccine supply continues to rise significantly.

“If we have a surplus, we’re going to share it with the rest of the world,” he said.

Even if AstraZeneca fulfills its contract with Canada, however, this will not see all 20 million shots delivered until the fall. Meanwhile, Ottawa could use the idle shots sitting in Ohio right now.

According to calculations by a team at the University of Oxford, fewer than 2 per cent of Canadians are currently vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with more than 10 per cent of Americans.

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