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Suck It Up Canadians, You’ll Get Your Turn to Get Vaccinated

Following criticisms for Canada's slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to procure doses that could otherwise go to poorer countries.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
February 9, 2021, 4:58pm
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing political pressure to improve and speed up Canada's COVID-19 vaccine campaign. Photo by David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s opponents are simultaneously criticizing his government for failing to secure enough vaccine doses and for accepting nearly 2 million doses that could otherwise go to poorer countries.

“Quite obviously, you can't have it both ways,” said Dr. Maria Sundaram, an infectious disease epidemiologist based in Toronto.

To date, Canada has administered about 1 million vaccine doses, with Canada’s vaccination rate ranking 37th in the world—among the lowest for developed nations, according to Oxford’s Our World In Data vaccination tracker. Just under 3 percent of Canadians have been vaccinated so far, while the U.S. and U.K. have vaccinated 12.8 percent and 18.7 percent of their populations, respectively, as reported by Our World In Data. 

“Worldwide vaccine supply being earmarked for countries that are harder hit actually makes some sense in terms of global outcomes,” Dr. Lynora Saxinger, a professor with the University of Alberta’s department of medical microbiology and immunology, previously told VICE World News. Canada hasn’t been hit as hard by the pandemic, with the U.S. reporting the most COVID-19 cases in the world and the U.K. ranking fourth globally. Canada doesn’t even crack the top 20 for total infections, according to Johns Hopkins Data. 

Yet Conservative opposition leader Erin O’Toole continues to criticize Trudeau’s inability to bring in vaccines. “Trudeau has botched the vaccine rollout. Without vaccines, Canadians won't be able to get back to work,” O’Toole tweeted on Friday. 

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Faced with mounting pressure to acquire more vaccines as fast as possible, Canada announced plans to withdraw 1.9 million doses from COVAX, an international vaccine redistribution pool. COVAX, in part, allows poor and middle-income countries that can’t afford to strike deals directly with vaccine manufacturers to get the vaccine.

Several leaders and experts have called Trudeau’s firm commitment to accepting vaccines from COVAX an “embarrassment.” He maintains that his priority is getting Canadians vaccinated first.

“I wish he made a different choice,” Sundaram said. By paying into COVAX, Canada is entitled to some vaccine, but “it’s expected that they would wait to ask until a later date, after other countries have been able to fulfill their needs,” she said.

“We need to sit down and ask, ‘Did we really mean we want to prioritize all older adults or did we mean we want to prioritize only older adults in wealthy countries?’” Sundaram said.

Trudeau has repeatedly said that all Canadians who want to be vaccinated will have the chance by September at the latest, while poorer countries around the world could be waiting until 2023 or 2024 to vaccinate their populations if nothing changes. 

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That’s dangerous, Sundaram said, because the virus travels across borders and it mutates. If the world doesn’t inoculate the most vulnerable populations as quickly as possible, people will die unnecessarily, and new vaccine-resistance COVID-19 variants could form, which could hop from country to country, she said. 

The global vaccine race “shouldn't be country versus country; it should be all of us versus the virus,” Sundaram said. “We are in a race against time.”

Poorer countries can’t press for rapid vaccine rollouts the way Canadians can, and it’s “useful to put that into context,” Sundaram said.

Canada's biggest hurdle is that it doesn't have domestic capabilities to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, so it depends on companies that produce doses elsewhere. 

Two vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, were approved by the country’s public health authority more than a month ago and both have announced shipment delays this month. Provinces and territories have already used up more than 86 percent of their supply so far, according to the Canadian Press. Canada is expecting 900,000 more doses of Pfizer’s vaccine to arrive at the end of the month, in part due to the fact that on Tuesday, Health Canada approved the pharmaceutical giants' request to use six doses per vial, as opposed to five, the Toronto Star reported. 

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The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson candidates are next in line to be approved, and Trudeau has said supply will start to ramp up soon. Trudeau recently announced plans to build a manufacturing facility that could produce the Novavax candidate, if approved. The site won’t be operational until at least late 2021, CBC reported, and while experts say it’s a win, critics keep asking why the move didn’t come sooner. 

VICE News previously reported that the current vaccination lull isn’t entirely Trudeau’s fault. Years of too little investment into public health and research have resulted in Canada having too few levers to pull today.

"The reality is that standing up new manufacturing of a vaccine requires expertise. It requires resources from the supplier. And given the scarcity of resources, suppliers emphasized locations that had existing capacity and would be able to manufacture quickly at a global scale,” Minister of Procurement Anita Anand told reporters last week.

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To compensate, Trudeau has struck deals to acquire millions of vaccine doses from seven developers—the most vaccine doses secured per capita in the world. If all seven vaccine candidates are approved, the country will be able to vaccinate all of its citizens three times over.

The current lull doesn’t necessarily spell disaster either—it could be used productively, said Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health justice advocate in Ontario.

Canada has repeatedly said it will prioritize equitable vaccine distribution, particularly for high risk groups, including the elderly, front-line health care workers, and Indigenous communities. But many people, such as racialized Canadians and those experiencing homelessness, are hesitant to take the vaccines because Canada’s health care system has failed them in the past. British Columbia released a report last week highlighting the dangers Indigenous peoples face in the province’s health care system. Dosani said officials need to work with community leaders—at churches and community centres, for example—to build vaccine trust.

Dosani said robust communications campaigns, offered in diverse languages and on accessible platforms, need to reach communities grappling with vaccine hesitancy. According to Dosani, now is also the time to establish innovative, mobile ways to get vaccines out to different at-risk groups. 

“We need to use this time to do this right because if we don’t, people will die,” Dosani said. 

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