The head of a U.S. biotechnology company developing one of the most promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates says Canada is not far behind other countries on receiving doses of its vaccine, despite criticism of the government’s procurement plan from the Conservative opposition.
“Canada is not at the back of the line,” Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna, told CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton on Sunday.
Afeyan said that because Canada was among the first countries to make a pre-order with Moderna, the country is guaranteed to receive a certain portion of the company’s initial batch of doses as long as the vaccine proves safe and effective and is given regulatory approval.
“The people who were willing to move early on with even less proof of the efficacy have assured the amount of supply they were willing to sign up to,” Afeyan said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live.
“Nothing that happened subsequently can affect that.”
Moderna’s mRNA vaccine is currently in Phase 3 clinical trials and preliminary data released two weeks ago show it appears to be 94.5 per cent effective.
Millions of doses procured
The federal government secured an agreement on Aug. 5 with Moderna for 20 million doses of its vaccine, with the option to procure an additional 36 million doses. The U.S. announced a deal for up to 500 million doses just days later, while the U.K. and European Union inked deals with Moderna only in the past two weeks.
In total, Canada has procured some 358 million doses from seven companies — the most per capita of any country in the world, according to research from Duke University’s Global Health Institute.
Despite that promising news, the Liberal government came under intense pressure this week to lay out a timeline for Canadians to begin receiving the vaccine. The U.S., U.K. and Germany have all announced plans to begin vaccinating their populations in December.
Opposition politicians and some premiers argued Canada was falling behind other countries in its planning after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians would have to wait to get vaccinated because the first doses of any vaccine will go to people in the countries where the vaccines are being manufactured.
Federal officials said Thursday that if all goes well, as many as three million Canadians — mainly those in “high-priority groups” — could be vaccinated in early 2021. One day later, Trudeau said that Canada is on track to vaccinate the majority of Canadians by September 2021.
But officials have provided few details about the government’s plan to roll out a vaccine once Health Canada gives one the green light.
At a press conference on Sunday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole repeated his view that Canada is behind other countries in procuring a vaccine.
“While the Americans and the British are talking about mass vaccination throughout December and January, our government is now talking about getting Canadians vaccinated by September,” O’Toole said.
“We need to show Canadians that there is a plan for the vaccine.”
O’Toole said the Trudeau government only turned its attention to pre-ordering tens of millions of vaccine doses from companies such as Pfizer and Moderna in August after its collaboration between the National Research Council and Chinese vaccine maker CanSino collapsed following months of delays.
“I would not have put all our eggs in the basket of China,” O’Toole said.
Regulatory approval pending
Companies have compressed the time it normally takes to develop a vaccine by starting the manufacturing process even before the completion of studies of the vaccine’s efficacy — part of a global effort to develop COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible.
Moderna is in the process of applying for emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Once the company obtains that authorization, Afeyan said, it will begin shipping doses to countries that have made pre-orders, including Canada.
Afeyan said he expects to start shipping the vaccine to Canada in the first quarter of 2021 and the quantity of shipments should increase through the second quarter and throughout the rest of the year.
The company said it expects to be able to produce a total of 20 million doses by the end of 2020 and between 500 million and 1 billion doses throughout 2021.
Moderna submitted early safety and pre-clinical data from Phase 1 and 2 trials to Health Canada last month as part of the regulator’s rolling regulatory review process. Health Canada must approve any COVID-19 vaccine before it can be administered to Canadians.
Experts say Moderna’s vaccine — which requires two shots taken 28 days apart — will be relatively easy to store and distribute because the vaccine can remain stable at normal fridge temperatures of 2 C to 8 C for 30 days. Another leading candidate, manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, must be shipped and stored at -70 C.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said it’s difficult to nail down a delivery date for any of the leading vaccine candidates right now because of the long list of uncertainties stemming from unfinished clinical trials, ongoing regulatory reviews, manufacturing and logistical challenges related to distribution.
“We’re all anxious to get out of this mess as a world, but certainly as a country as well,” Hajdu said.
“As Canada’s health minister, I’m staying focused on Canadians and on our own process, making sure our delivery plans are well laid out and that we have what we need in terms of being able to deliver on the variety of different kinds of vaccines.”
Hajdu added that her top priority is ensuring that Health Canada has what it needs to make sure the regulatory process proceeds smoothly so that any vaccines that are approved are safe and effective.