Last week was a busy one with the House back in session. I spent my time in Ottawa speaking with colleagues and listening for any news or insights that became apparent regarding vaccine procurement. (I also spoke on Bill C-14 (the latest Economic Statement) click here to view and in Question Period – click here to view). From the many emails constituents have sent me it is very clear this is the single most critical issue on your minds. I hope to share with you what we learned this week and to stick to the facts as much as possible – with perhaps a little editorial commentary at the end.
Has Pfizer Resumed Delivery?
It appears so. We expect to receive 70,000 doses this week. According to the information available Canada is to receive 335,000 doses the week of February 15th, and 395,000 the following week. Pfizer is contractually obligated to deliver 4 million doses by the end of March – although there is some indication now that “contractually obligated” may not be quite as firm as what we thought – and that it may be more of a “best effort” clause. The government is keeping the contracts confidential.
What About Moderna?
We received late breaking news Friday that Moderna is going to see a significant supply disruption starting this week. We do not know what that means in term of dose numbers. Similarly to Pfizer, the information they have shared suggests this is to increase manufacturing capacity and the disruption will be temporary. We will get a better sense of how this will play out in early March.
Is the EU Going to Block Exports?
The EU has given “verbal assurance” to the Minister that exports to Canada will not be affected. A concern however is that Canada was not included on the published list of countries the EU said would not be blocked. Both Pfizer and Moderna supplies for Canada are manufactured in Europe. For now, it appears that distribution will not be blocked and the only disruptions will be for plant upgrades by the manufacturers.
Production in Canada
Many of you asked why vaccines cannot simply be produced in Canada. We got somewhat of an answer to this question when the procurement Minister was at committee. The Minister claims all seven companies were asked to manufacture at least some of their vaccine in Canada, and all declined. We are told this is because Canadian manufacturers lacked the capacity for mass production. If government had acted sooner in providing financial assistance for these manufacturers to expand production capabilities the situation might be different today.
Calgary Vaccine Maker Providence
We asked the government repeatedly last week – click here to read the transcript – why we poured millions into a vaccine facility in Montreal in which construction is behind schedule, and into the failed CanSino Chinese initiative. We then asked about the Calgary vaccine maker Providence which received no government assistance despite their proposals to government. These questions remain unanswered.
What About AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Other Vaccines?
AstraZeneca remains under review by Health Canada despite being approved in other countries like the UK. We have been told that approval could come “within days”. The PM said, in one of his briefings from a tent outside of Rideau Cottage, that when approved, AstraZeneca would deliver 20 million doses before June. This turned out to be inaccurate as the delivery schedule will only be released after approval by Health Canada.
Johnson & Johnson is farther behind the regulatory review process as its vaccine was submitted after AstraZeneca. The remaining three vaccines Canada has purchased are still in early clinical trials.
The federal government came under criticism last week for its decision to accept vaccines from a program aimed primarily at helping developing countries. About 190 countries have signed on to Covax, an initiative of the World Health Organization, which is intended to ensure that high-risk groups in every country are immunized. Canada has invested about $345 million in Covax. Half of that money is being used to secure doses for domestic use and half of it to support developing nations. Canada is the only Group of Seven country utilizing doses from Covax. It is another indication the government is concerned about meeting its self-imposed timelines.
How Did We Get Here?
There seems to be a relatively universal belief across analysts, media, and the opposition, that the vaccine acquisition program is not running smoothly. The Prime Minister’s assurance that “everyone who wants a vaccine will have one by September” is becoming increasingly difficult to believe given the current logistical challenges. Much ink has been spilt these past few weeks on how we got to the position we are now in – here is my sense:
• Initially the government put a great deal of faith in a deal with CanSino – the Chinese pharmaceutical company. The opposition questioned the reliability of China as a partner in this venture and, as the government should probably have foreseen, China blocked exports of the vaccine to Canada.
• The government’s faith in China resulted in us being behind in approaching other suppliers like Moderna and Pfizer for their vaccines. The UK, in contrast, was one of the first to ink a deal and now has 10 million people vaccinated with at least 1 dose (Canada has done about one tenth of that). Israel, also one of the first to sign deals, has over 50% of its citizens vaccinated.
• The government then declined multiple offers from Canada’s private sector to develop and manufacture the vaccine. Instead, they poured more than $100 million into a new vaccine facility in Montreal that won’t be online until 2022. Not only did they ignore Calgary-based Providence, they also ignored Montreal-based PnuVax which has a Health Canada approved vaccine manufacturing facility literally right down the street from the construction of the new one.
One can only hope the two drugs now at Health Canada are approved soon and can deliver quickly, and that the supply disruptions from Pfizer and Moderna are truly temporary. Additionally, the three other companies currently conducting clinical trials hopefully will be submitting their vaccines to Health Canada for approval soon. We should have a better sense if we will meet our timelines and see the aggressive ramp up of vaccination deliveries we have been promised, within the next couple weeks. If that does indeed happen, the next challenge will be on the province to actually administer the massive influx of vaccines. Backloading in a large amount of doses could cause challenges for provincial distribution lines that have not been tested with this kind of capacity. Alberta appears well positioned to administer shipments quickly, partially because our healthcare system is centralized.
From a political perspective, it seems unlikely now that the Prime Minister would call a spring election. The Canadian electorate is grumpy due to all the lockdowns and the seemingly endless pandemic. He has, for better or for worse, drawn a very firm line in the sand with his September timeline for everyone to be vaccinated. If by summer vaccinations are moving smoothly, and the end is in sight for the pandemic, expect Canadians to go to the polls in mid-October. If, instead, the timeline becomes clearly unfeasible, all bets are off in terms of timing.
As always, I look forward to your comments.