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Health Canada could approve first Covid-19 vaccine in December

POLITICO logo POLITICO 11/27/2020 By Maura Forrest
A healthcare worker administers a vaccine. © AP Photo/Marco Ugarte A healthcare worker administers a vaccine.

OTTAWA — Canada could approve its first Covid-19 vaccine in December, with immunizations beginning to roll out across the country in January, according to Health Canada’s chief medical adviser.

Dr. Supriya Sharma says Canada is on track to authorize a vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech around the same time as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is set to meet Dec. 10 to discuss whether to approve the vaccine. Arianne Reza, an assistant deputy minister with Public Services and Procurement Canada, said vaccines should be ready for distribution soon afterward. “We don’t anticipate any lag time,” she said.

The officials were speaking at the first of a new weekly series of press conferences to provide updates on the federal government’s vaccine deployment strategy. Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said he’s optimistic that all Canadians could be immunized by the end of 2021. He also said Canada should receive six million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — the two leading candidates — in the first quarter of 2021, and perhaps as early as January or February. That would be enough to vaccinate three million people, as two doses per person are required.

However, the officials were unable to guarantee a timeline for vaccine distribution. “There really are a lot of moving parts,” Sharma said. “We don’t want to set up expectations that we may not be able to meet.”

Who gets them first: The earliest vaccine doses would likely be administered to priority groups, Njoo said: those at risk of severe infection, including the elderly; those most likely to transmit infection to high-risk groups; health-care and other front-line workers; police and firefighters; and those living in vulnerable locations, including Indigenous communities.


Video: Health officials hopeful for some covid-19 vaccine distribution in December (The Washington Post)

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Njoo conceded there will be logistical difficulties in getting vaccines out to all Canadians, and said the Public Health Agency of Canada is working closely with the Canadian Armed Forces on a distribution plan.

Officials said Canada has a “pre-positioning mechanism” in place that would allow the country to import vaccine doses even before they’re approved by Health Canada, to be stored in a central location pending authorization. But Sharma said that option is “unlikely” to be used for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as they have to be stored at very cold temperatures.

Other preparations: As Canada awaits the first vaccine approval, the government has been stockpiling syringes and needles to administer the immunizations, and currently has enough for 25 million doses, Reza said. Ottawa has also ordered 126 freezers, including 26 that can function at -112 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 that can function at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperatures required for Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines.

To date, Canada has final agreements with five vaccine manufacturers — Pfizer, Moderna, GlaxoSmithKline, Medicago and AstraZeneca — and is finalizing agreements with Johnson & Johnson and Novavax. Under the terms of the agreements, Canada is slated to receive 194 million doses, with options to purchase an additional 220 million doses, Reza said. Canada currently has deals to buy more vaccines per capita than any other country.

Waiting game: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier this week that Canada has no capacity to manufacture the leading Covid-19 vaccines domestically, meaning Canadians may have to wait longer than other countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Germany to receive immunizations.

Njoo pointed out that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both use novel mRNA technology, meaning it would be difficult for Canada to ramp up domestic production quickly. “Because of that, there really isn’t manufacturing capacity throughout the world. It’s very limited,” he said.

On Thursday, Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner slammed the government for its vaccine plan, saying more Canadians will die if Canada can’t roll out vaccines as early as other countries like the U.S.

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