OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is working to avoid further disruptions to the flow of COVID-19 vaccines as politicians in Europe — where Canada’s entire current supply of approved shots is made — discuss controlling vaccine exports to prioritize their own citizens.
Asked Tuesday about the situation, Trudeau said he understands the European concerns relate primarily to AstraZeneca shots — one of the vaccines Health Canada is still reviewing — and that he is reassured Canada’s supply of incoming vaccines is in “good shape.”
“We will continue to work closely with Europe to ensure that we are receiving the vaccines that we have signed for, that we are due,” Trudeau told reporters outside his residence at Rideau Cottage on Tuesday.
“The preoccupation seems to be a little more around AstraZeneca and some of their European productions,” he added. “We do not have, at this point or in the near future, sourcing of AstraZeneca from the European manufacturers.”
The spectre of further vaccine supply disruptions comes after Canada’s scheduled delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines was already knocked off course. The company was originally expected to ship 208,000 doses per week to Canada for the last three weeks of January, and then around 366,500 vaccines each week in February. But on Jan. 21, Maj. Gen. Dany Fortin — the head of Ottawa’s vaccine delivery campaign — said an expansion at Pfizer’s Belgium manufacturing plant meant deliveries would be significantly reduced.
Canada is receiving no Pfizer vaccines this week and is slated to get just 79,000 doses in the first week of February — roughly one fifth of what was first anticipated, although Trudeau and other government officials have stressed they still expect to receive the country’s expected slate of six million vaccines for the first quarter of the year.
MPs were slated to hold an emergency debate on Canada’s vaccine procurement in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, as opposition parties continue to accuse the Liberal government of failing to secure shots quick enough.
At Queen’s Park, the Ontario government expressed concern that the European Union could further curb shipments of vaccines. The current rollbacks have left the province scrambling to inoculate nursing home residents by reallocating doses intended for health-care workers and essential caregivers.
“It will put is in a very difficult circumstance,” said Health Minister Christine Elliott, who proposed pushing Pfizer to supply Canada from its central Michigan manufacturing plant if vaccines from its Belgium operation are blocked or reduced.
“If we don’t get it through Belgium, of course, we’re going to be pressing Pfizer and also asking the United States for access to some from their Kalamazoo facility,” she added during an appearance at Pearson airport with Premier Doug Ford.
“That’s the single, number-one job right now, making sure that we get the vaccines and we get them here as promptly as possible,” Ford said.
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European countries have faced similar concerns about vaccine supplies amid a global race to end the pandemic through mass inoculation campaigns. This week, the European Union warned it might restrict vaccine exports after delayed shipments from Pfizer and AstraZeneca. The bloc’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said Monday that the companies will now have to notify the EU “whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries” to ensure they honour supply agreements with member states.
Speaking to the World Economic Forum, European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen said the companies “must honour their obligations” after the EU countries “invested billions to develop the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines.”
Canada has approved vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna and is slated to receive 80 million doses this year from those companies’ manufacturing facilities in Europe.
Christina Antoniou, Pfizer Canada’s director of corporate affairs, told the Star by email Tuesday that the company understands the EU proposal is “aimed at increasing transparency and does not intend to restrict global supply to patients.” But she added the company expects further details and that “it is critical that all governments do not impose export restrictions or other trade barriers that risk creating uncertainty and disrupting supply of vaccine to patients around the world.”
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, Trudeau played down the risk of further disruptions to Canada’s supply, stating that he spoke with the chief executive officer of Moderna on Tuesday and it was clear Canada would continue to receive shipments despite “musings” about export controls in Europe.
Speaking later, International Trade Minister Mary Ng added that she has been in contact with her EU counterpart and that “we do not expect that the EU will restrict exports” of vaccines.
Procurement Minister Anita Anand also said Tuesday that despite the current delays, Canada expects to receive 70 million doses before the end of September. That’s more enough to give the required two doses of each vaccine to every Canadian.
Anand also stressed that her department is constantly pushing suppliers for quicker deliveries and that “it is possible that that timeline could be moved up” if those efforts are successful, or if Health Canada approves other vaccines Canada has ordered. The federal government says it has spent more than $1 billion so far on deals with seven vaccine manufacturers to buy up to 398 million doses.
“We are convinced that our suppliers will fill their contractual obligations,” Anand said in French. “But every time that a country takes measures to limit vital supplies for other countries, they slow the global response to this pandemic. We know that this virus does not recognize borders and we are equally in contact with governments around the world as we all work to ensure vaccines are deployed as quickly as possible.”
With files from Rob Ferguson and The Associated Press
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
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