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Pfizer Delay Compounds Canada’s Problems in Vaccine Campaign

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 21/01/2021 Sandrine Rastello and Kait Bolongaro

(Bloomberg) -- Canada came out No. 1 in the global race to secure vaccines against Covid-19, pre-ordering enough shots to inoculate its 38 million people three times over. You wouldn’t know it, though, from the pace of vaccinations.

Canada has administered about 684,000 doses, enough to give first shots to about 1.8% of the population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, though some people have already received two. That compares with about 7.6% in the U.K. and 5.2% in the U.S. Israel, leading all nations, has administered enough vaccine to give first shots to nearly a third of its population.

Health officials in Ottawa tried to reassure the public Thursday that the situation will improve in the spring. They released projections that 13 million people could be vaccinated by the end of June and 36 million by the end of September -- even if no additional shots are approved.

a close up of a door: Canada's Vaccine Rollout Hits Snags Despite Huge Orders © Bloomberg Canada's Vaccine Rollout Hits Snags Despite Huge Orders

A closed immunization clinic at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg

Canada’s campaign hit another roadblock last week, when Pfizer Inc. said it would temporarily reduce deliveries outside the U.S. as it renovates a factory in Belgium to boost capacity. Canada won’t receive any shipment from the pharmaceutical giant next week.

“Pfizer’s global supply issues are not ideal, but that’s why we were so ambitious in the large number of contracts we signed and doses we secured,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters this week. Canada has ordered 40 million doses from Pfizer, amounting to less than 20% of the country’s commitments.

More Than 54.3 Million Shots Given: Bloomberg Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker

The delay is a blow to Canada, where a resurgence of the virus since October has pushed hospitals closer to capacity, prompting provinces to impose new restrictions, including a curfew in Quebec. While Canada is hardly alone in its struggle to roll out the vaccine, the subdued start and the Pfizer hurdle have increased tensions between Trudeau and the provinces, and emboldened his critics.

“Canada is a proud, strong G7 nation,” Erin O’Toole, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said in written statement Tuesday. “We cannot accept this kind of failure -- not with so much at stake.”

Canada’s vaccination ratio ranks 14th worldwide on the Vaccine Tracker, behind Ireland and Iceland and ahead of Austria, Romania and Germany. The U.S. is fifth; the contrast between the North American neighbors was highlighted in news reports showing Canadian snowbirds happily getting shots in Florida.

Wrong Address

Even though Canada has secured more vaccines per capita than any other nation, “it doesn’t mean much” when the bulk is not yet being delivered, said Jean-Paul Soucy, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. So far only products produced by Pfizer and Moderna Inc. are authorized for use in Canada, which doubled its Pfizer order from 20 million doses last week.

Federal and provincial officials have attributed the slow pace, in part, to Canada’s expansive geography and the industrial freezer storage required for Pfizer’s vaccine, which made it difficult to cover remote areas in the world’s second-largest country by land mass.

The country’s decentralized health care system, which leaves it to each province to organize its own vaccination campaign with shots procured by the federal government, has made the rollout uneven.

Manitoba, for example, confused some people by sending the wrong address for a vaccination center, CTV News reported. Some provinces set aside shots for second doses to complete individuals’ inoculations, while others used up all their stock to give first shots to as many people as possible.

Ontario, the largest province with 14.7 million people, closed vaccination clinics over the December holidays because of low staffing. It was also slow to get vaccines into long-term care facilities, where thousands of elderly people died in the spring, Soucy said.

“Certainly, we’re behind peer nations in a lot of what we’re doing,” he said.

Canadian authorities said Pfizer will ramp up shipping and meet a target of 4 million doses by the end of March. But the disruption of deliveries forced provinces to change plans, lower their targets and cancel some appointments.

”It’s troubling, it’s a massive concern,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said at a news conference this week, referring to the Pfizer delay. “My message to the federal government is that nothing else matters right now. Every day we’re giving out less vaccine than we have the capacity to administer is a day we lose.”

(Updates with new projections in third paragraph)

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