Federal officials sought to reassure Canadians today that Ottawa has a plan to procure and distribute millions of COVID-19 vaccines in early 2021, as the government’s critics argue that Canada seems to be falling behind other developed countries in planning for a mass vaccination campaign.
Health Canada regulators are reviewing clinical trial data, the government has signed purchase agreements for promising vaccine candidates and public health officials have procured needles and syringes for a future deployment, officials said. But top civil servants still don’t know how and when Canadians will be vaccinated due to a number of uncertainties.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said the country will grapple with “some logistical challenges” in the months to come as it prepares to inoculate Canadians. He said the federal government will leverage the Canadian Armed Forces and an existing influenza vaccine distribution network to help with deployment.
Njoo warned that vaccine supply will be quite limited at first and will be reserved for “high priority groups” only — seniors in long-term care homes, people at risk of severe illness and death, first responders and health care workers and some Indigenous communities, among others.
A larger rollout, he said, will happen once supply chains stabilize and regulators approve more vaccine candidates for use in Canada.
If all goes well, and if U.S. pharmaceutical giants are able to meet delivery timelines, Njoo said as many as six million doses could be deployed in the first three months of 2021. Each patient will need two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine.
He cautioned, however, that it’s an “optimistic projection” and the details are far from certain right now.
Njoo said the federally run National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS), which has storage sites across the country, already has procured the needles and syringes needed for vaccinations, which will be shared with the provinces and territories.
The federal government also has purchased cold storage for the promising Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, should they be approved for use here in Canada. Those two drugs are based on groundbreaking messenger RNA technology, or mRNA, which essentially directs cells in the body to make proteins to prevent or fight disease.
The government has been criticized by the opposition, provincial leaders and some public health experts for providing few details about its plans to roll out a vaccine once Health Canada gives one the green light.
While the U.S. has publicly released a robust distribution plan — 20 million Americans are expected to be vaccinated in December alone — Canadian officials have been largely quiet about how the deployment here will be structured. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to speak with the premiers tonight to offer more specifics.
Njoo said there’s been a “great deal of preparation behind the scenes” and the government will provide more information about logistics, distribution and allocation at a later date.
Njoo did not offer a precise timeline, beyond a commitment to getting some Canadians vaccinated “early” next year.
Arianne Reza, the deputy minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada, said she expects vaccines will be available in the “first quarter of 2021.”
She said Canada has so far finalized purchasing agreements with five different pharmaceutical companies — AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Medicago, Pfizer and Moderna — while agreements with Johnson & Johnson and Novavax are being finalized now.
Canada is expected to receive at least 194 million vaccine doses, with contractual options for 220 million more. “Canada does have firm agreements,” Reza said. “We work every day with the vaccine manufacturers to firm up the delivery schedule.”
Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada, said her department has been reviewing clinical trial data on a rolling basis since October 9.
The rolling review process — a policy shift implemented because of the urgency of this pandemic — allows drug makers to bypass the lengthy timelines they normally face when launching a new vaccine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is set to make its final decision on the Pfizer product on Dec. 10 — the company has reported a 95 per cent effectiveness rate — and Sharma said Health Canada is expecting to give approval for that product “around the same time. We’re on track to make decisions on similar timelines.”
“We don’t want to set up expectations that we might not be able meet. We’re working flat out,” Sharma said.
Reza said she doesn’t know when that product might hit our shores, but she’s hopeful for a fast turnaround.
“The minute regulatory approval comes through, they will be ready to go quite quickly with supply and initial shipments,” she said.
Sharma said drug companies could send vaccines to Canada for “pre-positioning” — stockpiling in advance of regulatory approval — but no vaccines have yet been shipped to our country.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, the party’s health critic, said delays in vaccine deployment will lead to more COVID-19-related deaths. She said Health Minister Patty Hajdu should be prepared to apologize to Canadian families who lose loved ones to the virus.
“I know that sounds stark,” Rempel told a press conference. “But Canada’s inability to be clear on the details, to have a clear plan — when countries around the world have treated this with military efficiency and the severity that’s needed — will result in death.”
“Countries around the world will have the ability to vaccinate against COVID-19 but, in Canada, we will likely face 2,000 deaths per month because we don’t have the same ability,” she said, citing federal public health projections about the number of Canadians that could die each month if the virus continues to spread.
She said the government is perpetuating “mass chaos” and “mass confusion” by failing to release a clear distribution plan only weeks before an expected rollout.
She pointed to comments from Ontario’s health minister, Christine Elliott, who said Thursday she still wasn’t sure just how much her province will receive as part of the government’s coordinated vaccine bulk-buying program.
“I don’t even have words for how concerning this is … the provinces haven’t been brought to the table in a meaningful way. There’s a disconnect,” Rempel Garner said. “At the 11th hour, provincial governments shouldn’t be asking these questions.”