Amid COVID-19 vaccine authorizations and distribution plans rolled out by various countries, where does Canada stand?

Sai Rathakrishna, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Health Canada officially approved the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, following a two-month review period of clinical trial data. 

The approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 9th marks a significant milestone in the nation’s fight against the deadly virus. Four priority groups for vaccine administration have been federally identified to receive six million Pfizer doses, but concerns have been raised over the government’s estimated surplus vaccines within their acquisition and distribution plan from Amnesty International and global health advocates. 

Canada is the third country in the world to give the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the green light. The news of Health Canada’s approval of the vaccine comes just one week after the U.K. and Bahrain governments gave their own emergency-use authorization. 

A directive for the order of vaccine distribution has been provided by the independent National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI). The NACI has identified four priority groups in this particular order: staff and residents of long-term care or retirement homes, people over the age of 80, front-line healthcare workers, as well as some Indigenous communities who are most at risk of contracting the virus. 

The vaccine is backed by promising trial results: clinical trial data released by Pfizer reports that its vaccine is 95 percent effective. The vaccine candidate developed by Moderna, which is expected to be approved by Health Canada within the next few weeks, reports a promising 94.5 percent efficacy.The four groups are expected to receive all of six million Pfizer vaccine doses which are expected to arrive over the first quarter of 2021.

 Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine must be taken in order to be effective which means that there will be enough doses for 3 million people to be vaccinated between January and March of next year. Non-priority groups can expect to receive a vaccine beginning in April.

Although Canada has approved and pre-ordered the Pfizer vaccine, the country will not be able to distribute doses at the same time as others due to the lack of domestic manufacturing capacity. Once vaccines are authorized at the federal level, provincial and territorial governments will decide which demographics shall get priority access. The premiers are expected to adopt a similar distribution plan across all provinces and territories. 

Health Canada’s chief medical adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma, noted to reporters that “Canadians can have confidence … the vaccine was authorized only after a thorough assessment of the evidence demonstrated,” as Pfizer’s vaccine has been developed based on innovative messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which will instruct the body’s immune system to produce antibodies that can prevent or fight the virus. Sharma further ensured the public that “[the Pfizer vaccine] had met Health Canada’s strict standards for efficacy, safety and quality.” 

The federal government signed an agreement with Pfizer on Aug. 5 to procure 20 million doses of the vaccine. The agreement also outlines the option to procure an additional 56 million doses from the company if needed. However, Canada’s proactive steps to purchase vaccine doses from various biotech companies raises questions over the monopolization of vaccine purchasing and distribution practices by wealthier nations and the international consequences. 

According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, an initiative organized by Oxfam, Amnesty International and Global Justice Now, Canada has secured enough vaccine doses to vaccinate every Canadian citizen five times. “The current system, where pharmaceutical corporations use government funding for research, retain exclusive rights and keep their technology secret to boost profits, could cost many lives,” stated advisor to the People’s Vaccine Alliance Mohga Kamal-Yanni to The National Post. It is estimated that nine out of ten people in dozens of poor countries may not receive a vaccine in 2021 because rich countries, including Canada, have ordered more vaccines than needed.

Despite concerns over Canada’s hoarding of vaccines, the government is committed to helping developing countries in gaining access to vaccines. The country has already contributed $440 million to COVAX, an international effort that aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines around the world. Canada’s International Development minister Karina Gould echoed the government’s commitment in an interview, stating, “We recognize that we will not end the COVID-19 pandemic until we end it everywhere”.

It may take a while for most Canadians to receive a vaccine, but Trudeau maintains that the focus should be on the end goal of the vaccination campaign. “What really matters is when we get to cross the finish line”, Trudeau said. “And the fact that the doctors highlighted that, if all goes according to plan, we should be able to have a majority of Canadians vaccinated by next September, puts us in very good stead”.

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