Trudeau doubles down on promise of vaccines for all Canadians by fall. Is that still a realistic target?

Despite the temporary shutdown of a Pfizer plant in Belgium and threats from the European Union to limit export of COVID-19 vaccines, Canada should still have enough doses by the fall to inoculate every Canadian who wants the vaccine, several experts say.

However, the bigger challenge will likely be the logistics of ensuring that more than 35 million Canadians will have received shots by that time — a target set out by the Liberal government.

“Is it feasible? Yes, but certainly it’s going to take a monumental effort,” said Jason Kindrachuk, assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at Winnipeg’s University of Manitoba. 

“Vaccines don’t necessarily equal vaccinations,” he said. “Getting vaccine into the country is one [thing]

“But it’s getting it out of essentially storage areas and freezers and getting those vaccines into the arms of people [is] where we’ve certainly had some questions.”

‘Very confident’ despite setback

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was “very confident” that it would meet its end-of-September goal of vaccinating every Canadian who wants to be inoculated. 

He made those comments to reporters as the European Union has threatened to impose export controls on vaccines leaving the 27-member bloc to ensure supply on the continent. The proposal would require companies to seek approval before shipping vaccines to countries outside the EU, including Canada.

WATCH | Trudeau says vaccine shots will continue to arrive:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to reassure Canadians about the COVID-19 vaccine supply after the European Union raised the possibility of imposing export controls on vaccines leaving the EU. Canada’s Pfizer-BioNTech shots are made in Belgium. 1:44

How that could impact Canada’s vaccination plans will depend on how stringently the EU will appy these new dictates, said Ross Upshur, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“If they’re serious, they’re going to be vetting what sorts of exports are carried out by Pfizer and other vaccine makers, then this could be a real impediment to the rollout of the planned vaccinations.”

Meanwhile vaccine deliveries to Canada are grinding to a halt this week due to a temporary shutdown at Pfizer’s plant in Belgium.  That matters, because while Ottawa has signed deals for millions of doses of vaccines from several groups of developers, only two vaccines are currently approved for use in Canada: one produced jointly by Pfizer-BioNTech and another from Moderna.

Canada was expecting 366,000 doses of the Pfizer product to be delivered next week. Just 79,000 are now slated to arrive as the company retools its Belgium plant to improve productivity and pump out more shots than originally planned.

The temporary shut down raises questions as to whether there will be any additional or unforeseen delays that arise with shipments and supply, considering the vaccine is being shipped around the globe, Kindrachuk said

Potential new vaccines on horizon

Those kinds of setbacks are to be expected, said Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor of health law and policy at the University of Calgary. As well, she said, there can be issues with production or obtaining raw materials.

“I think it’s certainly not impossible that we could run into stumbling blocks that would set us back. But it does still seem to be a reasonable forecast at this point that that [the government target] will happen by the fall.”

Still, the temporary nature of the plant closure, combined with the potential for new vaccines to become available is cause for optimism, she said. 

Pfizer paused some production lines in Belgium in order to expand its manufacturing capacity, but has told Canadian officials it still expects to fulfill its first-quarter contract for delivery of vaccines. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which is already in use in the UK, could be approved in Canada in the near future. And Johnson & Johnson is set to release its COVID-19 vaccine data next week. 

We have contracts with them and if Health Canada gives the green light,  it’ll just make it even that much easier to achieve those goals and we’ll be able to achieve those goals faster,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and member of the Ont. government’s vaccine distribution task force.

However, even with just the two vaccines approved in Canada so far, he said it’s very realistic that we meet the Liberal government’s target. 

Of course, if Pfizer or Moderna stopped shipping their vaccines to Canada for whatever reason, and it’s more than just a temporary slowdown, then “that certainly could jeopardize those deadlines,” Bogoch  said.

“If the if the companies make good on their contracts, we will still be OK.”

Even with the delay, Pfizer is still expected to fulfill its first-quarter contract, “which means we would still get the same amount of vaccines,” he said. 

Johnson & Johnson, which is set to release its COVID-19 vaccine data next week, could add to the Canadian supply of doses if approved by Health Canada. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Logistics of delivery 

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University, said just between the two vaccines expected to ship to Canada, there will be enough for every individual by fall. 

“I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” he said.

But Chagla agreed with Kindrachuk that the stumbling block could be getting that supply into the arms of Canadians by the government’s target date.

“Getting 30 million Canadians vaccinated in a six month span is unheard of,” he said.

“I think that’s probably the bigger liability in terms of that September deadline, is the implementation sides of all of it rather than necessarily the actual supply chain.”

Kindrachuk said the size of Canada, including the northern regions and under-served communities still present logistical vaccination challenges.

“When we think about distribution, it’s not necessarily easy to do that. We have a massive area to try to cover,” he said.

He said it’s still unclear what structure and protocols will be used from region to region that will allow the vaccines to be distributed. Some provinces have been very forthcoming, others not.

“We really have to have things completely aligning for us to get this done by the fall,” he said.

 

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