Justin Trudeau – Judging Canada’s vaccine fight must go beyond a few jabs in round one
Right now, vaccines are politics. Canada’s federal government is taking a beating over not having enough of them right now. The provinces are bleating about supply — some provinces, anyway — after letting their own COVID-19 epidemics spiral into danger zones. And the feds dipped into a fund that is at least half-aimed at supplying poorer nations with vaccines. And so, were painted as desperate.
“Throughout there was an understanding that there would be moments of uncertainty, there would moments of delays and production challenges, as these companies scale up,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday.
Given that nobody even knew if these vaccines would work a year ago — and that the previous record for vaccine production was four years, with the mumps — that’s fair. Sure.
But we should be as specific as we can about what is going right, and what isn’t. The obvious problem is this: per capita Canada trails the U.S., the UK, Israel — everybody is getting dusted by Israel — and much of Europe, sits 47th in the world in vaccinations per capita, and pronouncements of failure are flying. Trudeau is saying Canada will still get the promised vaccines by the end of March, and every Canadian will be able to get vaccinated by September. He’ll be held to that.
The scoreboard stuff is expected. But if we’re going to have a vaccine bunfight, let’s be as clear as we can be without the feds actually making the contracts public. What could have been done differently? Because that, and not the current scrapes, is the issue.
The scrapes matter. More vaccines in arms will save lives, and falling behind other nations means our pandemic will be worse. The bigger problem is that Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and to a far lesser extent British Columbia let the virus roll through much of the second wave. For instance, once Ontario was finally forced to install something like a real lockdown to avoid completely destroying its hospital capacity, cases finally started to fall. Unlike with vaccines, there was a clearer road map, in the summer and September.
So you get Canada dipping into the international COVAX vaccine fund for 1.9 million doses by the end of June. Yes, South Korea is doing it, too, and Singapore, and Argentina, and more. Yes, Canada is the number two contributor to the fund; yes, the fund is designed to be partly for your own vaccine supply, and Trudeau said half the money would go toward Canadian supply when it was announced, and the other half to the poorer countries in the world.
It still looks like Canada was short on supply and went to a cheque-cashing place to borrow against a poorer country’s income to get through the next couple weeks. It wasn’t hidden. That doesn’t make it feel right. We’d better donate a lot of vaccine to poorer countries, at some point.
So what went wrong earlier? If you say Canada was slow in procuring, it’s hard to explain that Canada was second on Moderna — Canada bought on Aug. 5, the EU on Nov. 24. Canada didn’t get guaranteed early runs of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines because the United States shovelled money into both companies, without which Moderna probably wouldn’t exist, and secured the first runs of both vaccines; 100 million, reportedly. So Doug Ford can talk about driving to Kalamazoo and being up someone’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker, but the U.S. is closing in on half a million deaths. On vaccines, our alliance with America has as much value as a Trump Presidential Library gift shop.
Well, what about Europe? The United Kingdom was fuelled by a gang outside government that managed to create a workable procurement strategy, but then, the UK. is not in Europe anymore. Of the countries ahead of Canada, most are European.
But the Europeans are in a slowdown, too, with complaints that an average of approximately three per cent of citizens have been vaccinated, just above Canada’s 2.7 per cent. And even Israel, the world’s greatest vaccination story — and probably not coincidentally, a country that understands something about facing existential threats — is now slowing down and waiting until after the first quarter of the year for Moderna, and more Pfizer.
The slowdown is everywhere, so the difference appears to be in who got the most vaccine first. And for that, what could have been done differently? Canada could probably have jumped on Pfizer earlier, though at that stage nobody knew which of the vaccines would work. Domestic manufacturing was examined, and deemed insufficient. Maybe the feds were wrong.
So Canada, like most nations on earth, is behind the leaders, and it’s an agonizing wait. If Pfizer or Moderna run into more production problems, Trudeau’s promises will look empty. If they fail to deliver on their contracts at the end of Q1 — and the contracts are indeed quarterly — it seems unlikely any lever exists to change that. If the EU gets too desperate, things could get bad. A source familiar with those talks indicates nothing has been said to hint at that. But these are desperate times.
So you can’t say Canada has failed yet. The Liberals bet on every horse they could, and that strategy can still pay off.
“I think they held up their end of the bargain,” says Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto, and a member of the Ontario vaccine task force. “And I think we’ll see an explosion of vaccines on our doorstep in late March.”
There are the other bets — on Novavax, on Johnson & Johnson, on AstraZeneca. The country should be able to vaccinate its entire long-term-care population by March, or even mid-February. There are 350,000 doses of Pfizer expected to land at Pearson in two weeks or so, and more after that, and the big supply in April, hopefully. Vaccines will come. In the meantime, politics.
But they’re not here now, so provinces should double down to protect against variants, and protect essential workers with paid sick leave because the federal benefit isn’t enough. The feds should work out more testing at the land border. They need to communicate in a far more open and transparent way. And everyone else should treat this like winter: we have to wait out the bad weather. When the second quarter arrives, let’s see how Canada does. Because that, more than anything, will be the test.