By: Anwar Subhani
2021 began on a bleak note given the COVID-19 transmission skyrocketing across Canada. However, the approval and distribution of vaccines seemed to suggest that the end of the pandemic might be near. But how could a country that once boasted having secured the most vaccines per capita out of any nation, is lagging so behind in vaccine distribution efforts? And what can we learn from other nations?
To date, approximately 1 million Canadians or around 3% have been inoculated with at least one dose of the vaccine, a number stagnating behind several other countries. At the heart of the dilemma is the lack of domestic vaccine production prompting Canada to rely on foreign-produced vaccines subject to delays and supply shortages. This was evidenced by Pzifer’s temporary halt of its vaccine manufacturing earlier this month as a result of maintenance upgrading work at its Belgium plant and a cut in shipments by Moderna as well. Furthermore, newly elected President Biden still has not overturned President Trump’s executive order banning vaccine exports which has blocked Canada from procuring vaccines from Pzifer’s plant in Michigan and forcing it to rely on its counterpart in Belgium. Canada has attempted to bounce back by investing in the domestic production of the American Novavax vaccine but that is not expected to start until the fall of this year. Critics of Trudeau’s administration argued that had the government granted adequate funding for a Calgary-based biotechnology firm Providence Therapeutics, they would have been able to wrap up their Phase 3 clinical trials presently and have begun manufacturing vaccines out of Calgary. Instead, the government sought to partner with the Chinese CanSino company which later broke its deal due to diplomatic tensions. Additionally, the subsequent expenditure of funds as part of the WE charity scandal prevented Providence from procuring enough funding. These issues have prompted Canada to resort to using the COVAX vaccine program’s supplies. This decision was met with backlash as the COVAX program was intended to procure vaccines on behalf of developing countries.
Another shortcoming is Canada’s fragmented rollout that hindered the vaccination of long-term care residents. The initial rollout of the Pfizer vaccine was limited to a dozen distribution hubs nationwide and this prevented its direct delivery into long-term care facilities. However, once thawed, Pzifer’s vaccine was able to stay intact for up to 5 days in regular refrigerator temperatures allowing for direct delivery to long-term care facilities and this was an approach taken by Quebec and British Columbia. Furthermore, frustrated premiers who opted to secure their own provincial partnerships with vaccine companies to bolster their supply were blocked from doing so. This was attributed to the federal government’s contracts with these companies forbidding separate dealings with individual provinces. These supply issues have warranted some provinces to prioritize inoculating as many people with a single dose rather than ensuring all receive a second dose in a timely manner and this has posed a significant ethical and scientific dilemma.
It is evident that Canada’s rollout has been tainted by mismanagement and delays but how have other nations avoided the same fate? In the global race for vaccines, one nation has led the way and outpaced all others: Israel. As of late February, 85% of Israelis have been given at least one dose of the vaccine. Israel paid a premium to secure early doses of the Pfizer vaccine in a unique deal with the company that would involve Israel facilitating a swift rollout of the vaccine and subsequently sharing medical statistics and data with Pzifer detailing the state of herd immunity achieved in the country. Israel’s small size (roughly half the area of Nova Scotia) also facilitates its vaccine rollout alongside the country's digitized healthcare system that simplifies the logistics behind the rollout. Furthermore, it was also the first nation to repackage the vaccines to expedite their distribution at hundreds of accessible mobile clinics around the country. Other Middle Eastern countries tout similar success stories such as the United Arab Emirates which has benefitted from opting as a trial site for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and establishing over a hundred vaccine distribution centers. Even the United States which has always made headlines for its soaring coronavirus cases has established a successful vaccine rollout aided by both an expansive supply of the vaccine due to domestic production and expedited distribution, especially by pharmacies. However many assert that the US is not a model for success citing the lack of communication across states and no standardized eligibility criteria.
Ultimately, Canada is lagging behind other nations and that has dire consequences for those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and related comorbidities. Although Canadians have been assured most will be vaccinated by the end of September, the government must address the current shortcomings of its approach to not only meet that target but also fasten reopening the economy and getting back to normal lives.
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