Canada has fallen behind other developed nations in the number of shots administered per capita as supply disruptions derail planned vaccinations.
According to data collated by the University of Oxford-based Our World in Data, Canada now ranks 20th globally, well behind allies like the United States and the United Kingdom but also middle-income countries like Poland and Serbia.
Canada’s vaccination effort has also been outpaced so far by those in Bahrain, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
While a laggard compared to many other wealthy nations, Canada has administered more shots per capita than G7 partners like France and Japan.
Japan, with a population of 126 million people and just 5,400 COVID-19-related deaths, hasn’t yet started its vaccination campaign. Unlike Canada, Japan is planning to produce 90 million shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine domestically.
Some observers have blamed France’s “technocratic” system with its maze of red tape — a patient needs to consult with a doctor before they get a shot — for the slow rollout there.
While the U.S. is grappling with distribution issues of its own — the press there has said President Joe Biden is “inheriting a complete disaster,” and an “absolute mess” from the last administration — the Americans have so far vaccinated 24.5 million people with at least one dose.
Even when accounting for population size, the U.S. has vaccinated 3 times more people per capita than Canada. The CBC’s vaccine tracker estimates just over 900,000 doses have been administered in Canada to this point.
The U.S., with a population roughly nine times bigger than Canada, has fully vaccinated 3.8 million Americans with the two-dose regime of either the Pfizer or Moderna products, compared to about 150,000 people in Canada.
The U.K., a world leader so far, has administered at least one dose to 11.3 per cent of its people, nearly five times more per capita than Canada.
That country’s vaccination efforts have been helped by an early approval of the product from Swedish-British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Health Canada regulators are still reviewing the company’s promising vaccine for safety and efficacy.
Canada was among one of the first countries in the world to authorize the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for use but other nations have since caught up, as Canada contends with shortages because of a plant shutdown in Belgium.
Pfizer plant back online, Canada’s shipments still delayed
Pfizer is making upgrades to its Belgian plant so it can manufacture up to two billion doses this year to meet the insatiable demand.
In order to complete those upgrades, some production lines were idled and Pfizer didn’t have enough vials to go around in the short term to meet its previously promised delivery schedule.
A Belgian newspaper reported Thursday those upgrades are now complete, but a spokesperson for Pfizer confirmed Canada’s deliveries won’t return to a more normal level until next month.
“We expect the supply constraints of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to last in Canada until mid-February when we will be able to increase allocations to catch up,” the spokesperson said.
“While the precise percentage allocation may fluctuate, Pfizer Canada remains on track to meet our quarterly delivery objectives to Canada by the end of the first quarter of 2021.”
Confusion over first quarter deliveries
While the delivery schedules may fluctuate, the government insists its medium-term targets are more certain.
However, a government planning document released to the provinces Wednesday caused confusion as the delivery charts indicate Canada would only receive 3.5 million Pfizer doses by the end of March, 500,000 less than anticipated.
The confusion stems from just how many doses are included in each vial shipped. Amid manufacturing delays, Pfizer is pushing the government to recognize that six doses can be extracted from each vial, but the current Health Canada standard is only five.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Health Canada is still reviewing the request to formally change the label and is examining whether that sixth dose can be extracted consistently.
Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccine logistics at the Public Health Agency of Canada, insisted Thursday that, regardless of how many are in each vial, Pfizer is still contractually obligated to send 4 million doses to Canada in the first quarter of this year.
He said the 3.5 million figure floated to the provinces was just for “planning purposes” in the interim, and the country will still hold Pfizer to its previous commitments.
Fortin said the pharmaceutical giant has assured Canada that it will reach 4 million doses delivered, no matter which vial standard is recognized. If Health Canada accepts that six doses can be extracted from each vial, Pfizer will send more product to cover any gaps, Fortin said.
Fortin said that Canada is expecting 79,000 Pfizer doses next week, 70,000 doses for the week of Feb. 8, 335,000 the week of Feb. 15 and 395,000 doses the week of Feb. 22. Moderna will deliver 230,400 doses next week with 249,600 doses to follow three weeks later.
Thus, Canada is expected to receive 1,359,000 doses in the month of February, enough to vaccinate 679,500 people.
The opposition Conservatives have been pressing the government on why Canada has been bested by small countries like the Seychelles on vaccinations so far. “That is not normal for a country that claims to have the best vaccine portfolio in the world,” Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus said in the Commons.
The government has said it still expects hundreds of thousands of doses to flow in the months ahead. “This is a completely temporary situation, as we are working hard to ensure that every Canadian who wants a vaccine gets one,” Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said.
Under questioning from the opposition, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said “there is no more urgent issue for this government than getting Canadians vaccinated.”
She reminded MPs that Canada has vaccinated more people than our Five Eyes partners of Australia and New Zealand. Those two countries haven’t yet begun their vaccination programs but COVID-19 is almost non-existent there.