Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today announced that several hundred thousand doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine will be available in Canada before the end of the year — shots primarily earmarked for long-term care home residents and the staff working there.
Trudeau said up to 249,000 doses of the two-dose vaccine will be on hand by year’s end to launch a mass inoculation campaign, which is expected to take many months to complete.
The first doses will arrive as some provinces — notably Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec — grapple with a sharp increase in COVID-19 caseloads and deaths.
Trudeau said these doses will be delivered by the company directly to 14 distribution centres now equipped with the necessary cold storage. This particular vaccine must be stored in a freezer at temperatures between –80 C and –60 C, or in a thermal container at –90 C to –60 C. — which makes the logistics of distribution “incredibly complex,” Trudeau said.
The vaccines will be distributed to jurisdictions on a per-capita basis, meaning each province will receive vaccine doses in numbers proportionate to their share of the population. The vaccine will not be sent to the territories for the time being, as they now lack the capacity to safely store the Pfizer product.
While the exact location of each of the 14 distribution centres has not yet been disclosed, some provinces, including Newfoundland & Labrador, have said the Pfizer product will be stored at major hospitals in urban areas.
Long term care homes a priority
The national advisory committee on immunization (NACI) said last week the limited initial quantity of doses should be reserved for people who are most at risk of contracting the virus and developing severe symptoms — elderly residents of long-term care and assisted living facilities, retirement homes and chronic care hospitals, and the staff who care for them.
After long-term care home residents and staff are immunized, NACI said the next priority group should be all Canadians over the age of 80.
It will be up to provincial leaders to decide who gets shots when, but Trudeau said the premiers are in agreement that the NACI guidelines should be followed and the most vulnerable should be first in line.
While the first shipment of vaccines to arrive will be relatively small, Trudeau said it will give the provinces the chance to work through any kinks in the supply chain before the anticipated arrival of millions more doses in the first three months of 2021. Canada has secured 20 million doses of the Pfizer product with options for up to 56 million more.
“This is the largest mobilization of vaccines in Canada’s history, and being able to start with a small number and rapidly scale up as the flow of vaccine doses starts increasing quite rapidly — this is a good thing,” Trudeau said.
85,000 doses for Ontario this month
The United Kingdom, which will start inoculating its citizens tomorrow, is expected to receive about 800,000 of the 40 million doses it ordered over the next two weeks. Hundreds of thousands more doses are expected to arrive by month’s end from BioNTech’s manufacturing plant in Belgium. Pfizer and BioNTech co-developed this product.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the vaccine on Dec. 10 and Pfizer has said it will ship roughly 6.4 million doses to the U.S. in its initial tranche, with millions more to come by the end of the month. The U.S. supply will come from Pfizer’s plant in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford released his province’s priority list for vaccinations today, which closely tracks NACI’s advice.
Residents and staff in “congregate-care settings,” such as long-term care homes and retirement homes, will get priority as long as they’re located in one of Ontario’s “red zones,” such as Toronto or Peel Region — places where rising caseloads have led to more stringent restrictions on commerce and public gatherings. Health care workers and hospital employees in the red zones will be also among the first to be inoculated.
Roughly 85,000 doses will be available in Ontario this month, said retired Gen. Rick Hillier, the head of Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force.
He said that because of temperature constraints, the vaccine cannot be easily transported between distribution centres and individual long-term care and retirement homes.
“When we know we can move it, we want to get to those most vulnerable people first,” Hillier said. Staff may have to be vaccinated first at central inoculation sites, he said, given the difficulty involved in moving long-term care residents around.
Health Canada won’t ‘cut any corners’ in reviewing vaccines: Trudeau
The announcement comes a day after Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, told CBC News the two companies are prepared to ship vaccine doses to Canada within 24 hours of regulatory approval. Trudeau said the first shots should arrive next week, if Health Canada gives the product the green light.
Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada, has said her department could approve the Pfizer product as soon as this week. That timeline is roughly in line with American regulators’ plans for vaccine approval.
With recent polls showing that a sizeable number of Canadians say they will refuse a vaccine altogether, or will wait some time before lining up for a shot, Trudeau said he wants Canadians to be assured that the science will not be rushed and Canada’s regulators will only approve products that work.
“The regulatory process is ongoing and experts are working around the clock. They will uphold Canada’s globally-recognized gold standard for medical approvals,” Trudeau said. “The regulatory process needs to be as rigorous as it always is. There are no corners cut by Health Canada in terms of approving a vaccine for safe use by Canadians.”
Temperature sensitivity complicates distribution
Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading the Public Health Agency of Canada’s national operations centre on vaccine logistics, will lead the first of several planned “dry runs” with the provinces and territories today to work out the best way to handle the extremely temperature-sensitive vaccine.
Fortin said health care professionals can start administering the Pfizer shots “a day or two” after they arrive on our shores.
“Once you receive the product you have to unpack, thaw, decant, mix — so that’s a relatively fast process for the health professionals,” he said.
Asked why these doses are coming now when his government has long said shots wouldn’t arrive until 2021, Trudeau said there was always a possibility that vaccine doses would be available in December but he didn’t want “to get people’s hopes up.” He dismissed the suggestion that the early shipments were driven by a desire to silence criticism from the opposition Conservatives.
Health Canada is reviewing applications for other promising vaccine candidates in the development pipeline, including products from Massachusetts-based Moderna, U.K.-based AstraZeneca and the pharmaceutical division of Johnson & Johnson, Janssen. Moderna has said Canada will be among the first countries to receive its vaccine once it is approved.
These three vaccines do not require such stringent temperature control measures and, if approved, will be more widely distributed than the Pfizer vaccine.
During a news conference earlier Monday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole accused the government of undermining confidence in COVID-19 vaccines by failing to keep Canadians informed of the process.
“Information in a pandemic is a critical tool, and the secrecy of the Trudeau government is leading to more uncertainty, more confusion and a lack of confidence at a time where we’re seeing Christmas celebrations cancelled,” he said.
Later today, MPs will vote on a Conservative motion that calls on the government to present a detailed vaccine rollout plan.
Vote today on vaccine plan motion
The motion calls for a status update on:
- How each type of vaccine will be safely delivered, stored and distributed to Canadians.
- The date when each vaccine type will be first deployed in Canada and the rate of vaccinations anticipated by month.
- Any planned federal guidance with respect to the deployment of the vaccine by priority group, such as front line health workers and seniors.
- The plan to distribute the vaccine to Indigenous communities, members of the Canadian Armed Forces and veterans.
Today’s news conference also comes ahead of a first ministers’ meeting set for Thursday. Trudeau is expected to talk with the premiers about issues such as the vaccine rollout and federal health transfers. The premiers are pushing for a $28 billion annual boost in health funding.