Will Canada lag behind on coronavirus vaccines? It's complicated, experts say

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Promising coronavirus vaccine developments have made headlines in recent weeks, prompting many Canadians to question when they’ll be able to get the jab that can help to bring life back to normal.

And as other countries begin to claim they might provide some of their citizens with a vaccine next month, some politicians and pundits have started questioning whether Canada is slipping to the back of the line.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made comments on Tuesday that set off those concerns, as he noted that Canada doesn’t have the same capacity for domestic vaccine production that other countries have at their disposal.

“The very first vaccines that roll off an assembly line in a given country are likely to be given to citizens of that particular country,” Justin Trudeau told reporters. “But shortly afterwards, they will start honouring and delivering on the contracts that they signed with other countries, including with Canada.”

He added that Canada “no longer has any domestic production capacity for vaccines.”

“Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first,” Trudeau said.

The comments prompted concerned questioning from members of the opposition.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister told the House that Canadians would be the first in line to receive the vaccine. Today, he admitted we are going to be behind many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Reuters is even reporting that Mexico will receive a vaccine before Canadians,” said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole during Tuesday’s question period.

It’s true that Canada lags behind some other countries when it comes to the production capacity for the vaccine candidates that are currently proving to be the most promising. However, Trudeau’s comments that Canada has no domestic production capacity for vaccines – something he pinned on previous Conservative governments – isn’t altogether correct.

That’s because the two most promising vaccine candidates, which come from Pfizer and Moderna, are mRNA vaccines – a new kind of vaccine. While Canada does have multiple vaccine production facilities, it doesn’t have the right kind to produce the mRNA vaccines.

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“Champagne and vodka are both alcoholic drinks that get put into bottles, and you drink them out of glasses. They’re clear liquid. That’s where the similarities end,” said Andrew Casey, president and CEO of BIOTECanada, which represents Canada’s biotech industry.

“When you go and look at the manufacturing process, you cannot ask Moët to distill vodka and you cannot ask Smirnoff to make champagne. And that’s the same situation here.”

Casey said that mRNA vaccines have a limited amount of manufacturing capacity around the world, and none of that capacity falls within Canada’s borders.

However, Casey says Canada’s vaccine production capacity isn’t the only consideration when it comes to the timeline of a vaccine rollout.

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While production is an important aspect of the vaccine procurement process, there are lots of elements that go into it – from regulation, to distribution, to storage.

Even if Canada doesn’t have the ability to produce the coronavirus vaccines, companies that are manufacturing them around the world will want to get them out the door as soon as possible once they’re ready. And if Canada is ready to receive them while the host country of the production plant is not, well, it’s possible those vaccines will end up here instead.

“It could turn out that the U.K., while they wanted to get earlier, they may not be ready to roll it out – and so that vaccine may come to Canada. I don’t know what the contracts are and I don’t know the readiness of other jurisdictions, but that could be absolutely critical,” Casey said.

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In anticipation of a vaccine’s arrival, the Canadian military has been looking to buy freezers that can store a coronavirus vaccine. The government posted a request for proposal online last week seeking a supplier of the sort of ultra-low temperature portable freezer that can properly store a successful vaccine candidate.

The Canadian military has also said it is preparing to help with the country’s vaccine rollout more broadly.

The uncertainty of the global vaccine landscape – and the timelines associated with it – is a reality that the chief medical adviser at Health Canada also appeared to emphasize in a Thursday press conference.

Dr. Supriya Sharma said Thursday that Canada has “similar timelines” to the U.S. and Europe for approval of the vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, and that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate could be approved in Canada next month.

She also said that pinpointing exact timelines for vaccine rollout is a difficult process for every country around the world.

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“There are multiple things happening at the same time. Health Canada, on the regulatory side, we’re doing our review. The companies that have already finished their clinical trials are working to do their manufacturing. The really complicated part of the vaccine manufacturing process is when they’re doing that scale-up, and they’re doing that now,” Sharma said.

“And then it’s the matter of what their volumes are going to be and which volumes are going to which country. So all of that is being determined as we speak, and I think it’s really challenging for anyone, regardless of where they are in the world, to commit to the exact dates.”

She said the best timeline she can offer is that Canada will likely see a limited rollout of a vaccine in January next year, following the earliest possible regulatory approvals taking place in December.

Sharma said Canada is reviewing Pfizer’s vaccine alongside the United States and Europe, which means the vaccine will likely obtain regulatory approval in Canada at the same time the United States gives the candidate its emergency authorization.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a meeting on Dec. 10 to consider whether to give that vaccine the go-ahead.

In light of all these moving parts, Canada may not be all that far behind in the global lineup for a coronavirus vaccine.

“I think we’re talking a matter of weeks and months. We’re not talking about a full year offset. I think there’s a huge challenge globally of rolling these vaccines out,” said Casey.

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Meanwhile, Sharma said she’s hesitant to make promises she can’t keep.

“There really are a lot of moving parts. We don’t want to set up expectations that we may not be able to meet,” she said.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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