Ottawa says it’s not alarmed by Trump’s threat to restrict vaccine exports

Federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said today he doesn’t expect a U.S. attempt to restrict overseas shipments of the Pfizer vaccine will have any meaningful impact on Canada’s initial supply of doses.

LeBlanc said he’s “confident” that the New York-based pharmaceutical giant will be able to fulfil its contractual obligations to deliver millions of vaccine doses to countries abroad, despite reports that U.S. President Donald Trump is intent on limiting shipments.

“With respect to the Pfizer doses, we expect them to start arriving in the coming days, in the next week or so,” LeBlanc told reporters at a COVID-19 briefing.

“We have no reason to think whatsoever that access to the Pfizer vaccine will be in any way disturbed. Deliberately, in the contracts themselves, we contemplated having access to production facilities on more than one continent,” he said.

The government has hesitated to state publicly where Canada’s Pfizer doses are coming from, due to security concerns. Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccination logistics at the national operations centre, said Tuesday the planned “dry runs” on distribution are based on the assumption the doses are coming from Belgium.

“We’re exercising a dry run this week. Boxes are in the air right now. They left Belgium and are on their way to the next transit node in the cold chain. They’re being monitored, so we will learn,” Fortin said of the delivery simulation.

“This is one way this week where we will learn how the process will flow, if adjustments need to be made.”

WATCH: Maj.-Gen. Fortin says vaccine dry runs are underway

Major Gen. Dany Fortin outlines the dry run process during a public health news conference. The first dry run began on Monday Dec. 7th. 1:23

A government official, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, told CBC News today that most, if not all, of Canada’s initial supply of the Pfizer product will be coming from a plant in Belgium. Canada is expecting to see 249,000 doses shipped by month’s end.

Canada is expected to take delivery next week of vaccines produced in Puurs, a small town in Belgium’s north that will be churning out hundreds of millions of doses of the co-developed Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the European market, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom over the next 12 months.

The U.K.’s initial shipment of some 800,000 vaccine doses was shipped from Puurs as well. The National Health Service started inoculating Britons this morning.

A spokesperson for Pfizer told CBC News that the company is “committed to honouring our agreements” with Canada and countries have “a number of procurement routes to rapidly secure vaccine supply.”

“We are a global company that prioritizes patients all over the world. Pfizer and BioNTech are committed to bringing this vaccine candidate to help meet the global public health need. We will work closely with international initiatives, governments and other vaccine manufacturers, as appropriate,” the spokesperson said.

A person in Mainz, Germany gets a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as part of the product’s clinical trial. Canada’s initial supply of the vaccine will come a Pfizer plant in Belgium. (Reuters)

Because the Pfizer product is so temperature sensitive — the vaccine must be stored in a freezer at temperatures between –80 C and –60 C — Pfizer is shipping the product directly from its plants to points of use to limit movement and keep the product stable.

The company’s Kalamazoo, Mich. plant and a storage facility in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. will supply the U.S. market to start, but those sites could later be re-purposed to complete global deliveries not yet filled by the Belgian operation.

Trump is under pressure following a report in the New York Times that the U.S. passed up a chance this summer to secure up to 500 million more doses of Pfizer’s highly effective vaccine. The Trump administration has so far placed an order for 100 million doses of the two-dose vaccine.

White House officials, speaking to reporters Monday, did not provide details of any proposed restrictions but said Trump was drafting an executive order that would be a “reaffirmation of the president’s commitment to America first.”

The New York Times has reported that Trump’s order will stipulate that other nations will not get U.S. supplies of the Pfizer vaccine until Americans have been inoculated — but some experts have questioned whether such an order would have any practical effect on contracts the drug maker has signed already with countries like Canada.

This would not be the first time Trump has tried to deny medical products to Canada during the pandemic.

In April, he tried to prevent U.S.-based 3M from honouring contacts with Canadian buyers of American-made N95 masks vital to limiting the spread of the virus.

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