OTTAWA—Vaccine deliveries will come to a screeching halt next week as pharmaceutical giant Pfizer slashes shipments to Canada to zero while it retools its Belgium plant to expand production.
The announcement by Anita Anand, the federal minister in charge of vaccine procurement, and Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, in charge of federal vaccine logistics, upended national vaccine rollout plans.
Pfizer will deliver no vaccine doses to Canada next week, the week of Jan. 25, after delivering 82 per cent of this week’s doses.
That’s a harsher hit than was expected after Friday’s announcement that Pfizer would reduce by half its shipments over the next four weeks to Canada and to all countries which have purchased its doses.
In Toronto, the delay forced the immediate closure of a high-profile vaccine clinic the day after it opened, and health workers with appointments saw them cancelled. The clinic had been touted as a blueprint for future mass immunization.
The pause infuriated Premier Doug Ford who said he was “very angry” at the fluctuating delivery schedule especially in light of Pfizer’s statement it would restore supplies to the European Union starting Jan. 25, the same week that Canada’s supply nosedives.
Ford blamed Pfizer not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but suggested the Trudeau government wasn’t pushing Pfizer’s chief executive hard enough to secure timely supplies.
“I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him, I would not stop until we get these vaccines,” Ford told a news conference at Queen’s Park.
Ford issued a public appeal to incoming U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to allow a shipment of at least 1 million doses from Pfizer’s Kalamazoo, Michigan plant to be sent to Canada.
“My American friends, help us out,” said Ford. “You have a new president, no more excuses. We need your support and we look forward to your support. And that’s a direct message to President Biden, help out your neighbour. You want us all to get along, you know, hunky dory, kumbaya? Help us.”
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech took public funding from the American government to develop their messenger RNA vaccine and is contractually obligated to supply the first 100 million doses produced at Kalamazoo to the U.S.
Anand, on the defensive, said she’s still pressing for earlier deliveries and insisted that Pfizer has assured her Canada will get its “full allotment” of 4 million doses by the end of March.
The news disrupts vaccine delivery schedules just as highly-contagious variants of the novel coronavirus are popping up around the world, with 23 cases of the strain first identified in the U.K. now found in Canada.
Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Monday the virus variants might mean Canada would need even more vaccine uptake than the 60 to 70 per cent coverage normally thought to provide broad community protection known as “herd immunity.”
But the changing delivery schedule is creating havoc for provinces like Ontario and Quebec.
After Pfizer delivered 124,800 doses in the first week of January, the company had been expected to ship about 208,650 doses weekly to Canada throughout January.
That was to ramp up in February to 366,000-367,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine per week, or about 60,000 doses more per week, and represented, Fortin said on Jan. 8, “an advance on Canada’s March allocations.”
The total expected Pfizer deliveries in February under the old schedule was 1.4 million doses.
Now that is all up in the air.
According to Pfizer’s latest adjustments, Canada will receive a minor reduction — of 18 per cent — this week to a shipment that was almost ready for transit — but next week’s supply will completely dry up, and over four weeks will experience a 50-per-cent cut overall, until the company begins to increase Canadian deliveries once again in late February.
Ottawa would not commit to any revised projection of February’s totals.
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Anand gave no hint if supplies would be increased or whether the rest of Canada’s promised Q1 supply would come earlier once Pfizer’s Puurs, Belgium plant has expanded.
She said simply that Canada expects to be on equal footing with other countries.
“I don’t have the answers regarding Pfizer’s decisions but we have been assured of equitable treatment, and we have been assured that we will receive the 4 million doses as previously promised.”
Provinces like Quebec and Ontario where the second COVID-19 wave is hitting hardest reacted instantly.
Quebec health minister Christian Dubé said his province will vaccinate 225,000 people, not 250,000 as hoped, by early February.
He said it justifies Quebec’s earlier decision to vaccinate as many elderly vulnerable people in long-term care and health workers with a first dose, even though it means delaying a second shot by 90 days.
Legault demanded to know if Ottawa negotiated stiff enough penalties to punish the company if it fails to meet its agreed-upon timelines for delivery.
The federal government has never publicly disclosed the contracts’ details, total costs, or penalties, and now Quebec says “unfortunately it’s too late” for the provinces to try to negotiate their own deals, a point Ford underlined as well.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it a “momentary delay” in production that was to be expected as global demand for vaccines intensifies and only a few vaccines are yet approved. Canada has approved two: Pfizer and a similar vaccine Moderna.
Moderna is shipping every three weeks to Canada, and there’s no change so far to that.
So Canada still expects a combined 6 million doses — from Pfizer and Moderna — by the end of March.
Trudeau promised Canada is still on track to have enough supplies to vaccinate all those Canadians who want to be inoculated “by September.”
Anand simply says contracts ensure Canada will have 70 million vaccines between Moderna and Pfizer in this country prior to the end of September so that all Canadians who wish to be vaccinated can be vaccinated.” By the end of 2021, that total will be 80 million.
The announcement came as Ontario was announcing changes to prioritize nursing homes, high-risk retirement homes and fly-in Indigenous communities with shipments to be shorted by 66,000 doses over the next four weeks. The news means another 15,000 lost doses at a time when Ontario has promised to get first shots in the arms of all residents, staff and essential caregivers in nursing and high-risk retirement homes by Feb. 15.
Retired general Rick Hillier, head of Ontario’s vaccination task force, said he hopes the province can still meet the Feb. 15 goal despite the shortage.
“Obviously it is going to slow down what we can do,” said Hillier. “If we fall outside of 15 February it will be because we do not have sufficient vaccines…it will be close.”
Second-doses for health-care workers in hospitals who have had their first jabs of Pfizer vaccines will be delayed up to the maximum 42 days recommended by Health Canada.
But second doses for nursing homes and retirement homes will be given according to the recommended Pfizer schedule of three weeks after the first shot to provide optimal protection against the virus because most residents have weakened immune systems, Hillier said.
Inventories will be carefully monitored, he pledged.
Nursing homes and high-risk retirement homes in Toronto, Peel, York, Windsor-Essex, Durham, Ottawa and Simcoe-Muskoka have been given first doses, accounting for about 40 per cent of such facilities in the province.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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