Canada’s vaccine rollout is off to a slow, frustrating start, made worse by a temporary pause in shipments from Pfizer, and politicians on the right and left are criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not doing enough to safeguard Canadians.
But some experts say there wasn’t much Trudeau’s government could have done to prevent the shortage, and political jockeying could actually make things worse by unnecessarily worrying Canadians.
Last week, the vaccine rollout took another hit when Pfizer announced that expansion of its Belgian facility—so it can ramp up vaccine production—will delay COVID-19 vaccine shipments to several countries, including Canada. The pharmaceutical giant will deliver half of the promised doses over the next month, with Canada receiving zero this week. Pfizer has said it will uphold its commitment of delivering 4 million doses before the end of March.
Politicians were quick to label the announcement a failure by Trudeau.
“Describing this as a failure of leadership is an understatement,” Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole said on Twitter. “I am calling on Justin Trudeau to pick up the phone and call the CEO of Pfizer. This must be done now. Canadians can’t wait.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he’d be applying more pressure on Pfizer if he was in charge. “I’m just angry at the situation, that other countries are getting it,” Ford told reporters last week. “I’d be up that (Pfizer) guys’ yin yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn't know what hit him.”
Officials have also criticized a failed deal between Canada and China to test and develop the CanSino vaccine together, The Globe and Mail reported. Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said she thinks Canada was late to secure deals with Pfizer because it was holding out hope for the CanSino candidate. Tensions between China and Canada also likely impeded the partnership, iPolitics reported, and news broke over the summer that China was blocking shipment of the vaccine candidate to Canada. Canada’s National Research Council said data that surfaced after the partnership was announced confirmed that other vaccine candidates were more promising. Canada was among the first countries to strike deals with Moderna and Pfizer.
Federal NDP Health Critic Don Davies also put out a statement criticizing Trudeau for not disclosing the details of vaccine procurement deals.
We know Israel secured millions of doses in part by paying a hefty price and sharing citizen medical data with companies. Privacy experts are worried, NPR reported. So far, Trudeau’s government has offered little information about its contracts with Pfizer, Moderna, and other pharmaceutical giants who are developing vaccines, and has repeatedly refused to reveal its vaccine price tags.
When VICE World News asked whether Canada has offered personal data as part of its contract, Minister of Procurement Anita Anand did not respond.
According to Our World in Data’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker, Canada’s vaccination rate per capita ranks 24 when compared to other countries. So far, a little more than 2 percent of Canada’s population has received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine (both require two doses for a person to be fully effective). Notably, Canada is behind the U.S., where almost 7 percent of people have received a shot, and far behind Israel, which has already administered vaccines to 45 percent of its citizens. Several European countries that depend on the Pfizer vaccine are scrambling, with Italy, a country that has inoculated fewer people per capita than Canada, threatening to sue the company following delay announcements. Less than 1 percent of people have been vaccinated globally.
Several experts told VICE World News the vaccines rollout—Canada’s largest mass vaccination campaign ever—isn’t actually suffering from a shortage yet.
When politicians criticize vaccine campaigns unfairly it can undermine the public’s confidence, said Ève Dubé, a medical anthropologist at Laval University. “I do hope that it won't become too much of a partisan issue,” Dubé said. “It’ll have a negative impact on people's willingness (to get vaccinated).”
According to Dubé, the best thing officials can do right now is rally together to support a smooth vaccination campaign.
Dr. Barry Pakes, assistant professor at University of Toronto’s school of public health and member of its Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases, put it bluntly: “The opposition is trying to gain points from it, obviously.” He added that there are reasonable criticisms of the vaccine rollout, but the shortage isn't one of them.
Since the country received its first vaccine shipments last month, the vaccination campaign has been criticized for its low supply, slow pace, and poor communication from government officials. Here’s what experts said really explains the slow rollout:
Provinces in charge
In Canada, the federal government is in charge of procuring vaccines and has established equitable guidelines for who should get them first—health care workers, Indigenous communities, and long-term care facilities—but provinces and territories have authority over rollouts. It’s hard to streamline a vaccine campaign when the health care system is fragmented, experts said. For now, it’s too soon to tell whether mass inoculation campaigns will fail.
Canada's emphasis on equity could be one reason why it’s trailing the U.S. Working out which healthcare workers and First Nations should get the vaccine first, and who should be first in line at long-term care facilities, takes time, experts say.
According to reports, the richest zip codes in the U.S. are getting vaccinated faster, even though poor and racialized neighbourhoods have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19 outbreaks.
“The U.S. rollout isn’t seamless at all,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, a professor with the University of Alberta’s department of medical microbiology and immunology.
Saxinger added she also believes countries with the most severe outbreaks should be prioritized, including the U.S., which has suffered the worst COVID-19 outcome in the world.
“Worldwide vaccine supply being earmarked for countries that are harder hit actually makes some sense in terms of global outcomes,” she said.
Only two vaccines so far
Canada’s current vaccine supply is dependent on Moderna and Pfizer. But people can expect the vaccine campaign to speed up when more vaccines are approved.
The U.K. rushed approval for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine candidate as a way to get people jabbed faster because it’s struggling to contain the aggressive virus variant, Saxinger said, but Canada isn’t in a dire situation yet. The candidate is currently under review by Health Canada, as is the Janssen-Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidate.
In all, Canada has ordered more than 200 million vaccine doses from seven companies, with options to buy millions more.
No in-house production
One of Canada’s biggest challenges is that it can’t make COVID-19 vaccines itself, because they rely on new mRNA technology that we don’t have. Saxinger said setting up facilities capable of producing mRNA vaccines early on would have been a gamble, meanwhile, Pakes said it’s up to provincial governments to invest in higher education, so that the country can become a leader in vaccine research and development.
“We only regret not investing (in science) in hindsight when we have a pandemic like this,” Pakes said.
In the meantime, Canada depends on COVID-19 vaccine imports, a situation further complicated by that fact that Health Canada needs to vet facilities where vaccines are developed: right now, the country gets all of its Moderna and Pfizer doses from vetted European sites, and can’t accept those made in the U.S.
And while Canadians are getting half the expected Pfizer doses, the European Union will still get 92 percent of ordered doses between now and February 15, according to reports.
“We are also disturbed to learn that the European Union will have a much shorter interruption in deliveries than Canada, despite assurances from the Trudeau Liberals that countries will be impacted equally by supply reductions,” NDP health critic Davies said.
The EU announced Tuesday it will consider imposing export controls on vaccine doses to safeguard supply for its 27 member states, which could affect how many doses Canada gets. “We are communicating with our partners in Europe to make sure the contracts signed by Canada are respected,” Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday. (Moderna shipments wouldn’t be affected because they're produced in Switzerland and two facilities in the U.S., none of which fall under EU jurisdiction.)
On the plus side, Canada has purchased enough vaccines to inoculate the entire population three times over—but that’s dependent on the country approving more vaccine candidates. For now, only Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are sanctioned by Health Canada, with the country expecting 80 million doses from them this year. As of Wednesday morning, Canada had administered 868,454 doses, or 77.4 percent, of its total supply so far.
Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.