Why Canada is in mess for COVID-19 shots

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With the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic coming on, the demand for vaccine doses continues to outstrip Canada’s relatively thin supply. As of early Wednesday morning, Canada had reported 1,194,995 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 84,313 considered active.

Canada has universal health care and millions of doses on order. So why are so few of its citizens vaccinated?

Canada’s domestic vaccine manufacturing capability has been dying out, leaving the country entirely dependent on foreign sources for the doses that promise an eventual return to normal life.

Canadians usually so smug about their universal health care—are looking on with jealousy. “Here, vaccine envy has turned into a national psychosis, another reason to beat ourselves up for some fatal national flaw,” wrote Alan Freeman.

When the pandemic began, Canada — unlike many other countries — lacked a facility that could be used easily to produce the viral vector COVID-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson, or the mRNA products offered by Pfizer and Moderna.

Canada has fully vaccinated just three per cent of its population — a low figure explained in part by the long interval between shots — while 30 per cent have had at least one shot.

An estimated 231 million vaccine doses have been administered so far in the U.S. and 37 percent of the American adult population has been fully vaccinated with two doses. Among people over the age of 18, 54 percent of Americans have had at least one dose.

In the U.K., more than 47 million doses have been deployed and 64 per cent of all Britons have had at least one dose.

The two countries that easily outpaced Canada’s vaccination effort have one thing in common: they have homegrown pharmaceutical companies that make their own products at domestic facilities — a bulwark against the vaccine nationalism that has disrupted global supply chains.

So Canada never has large-scale vaccine manufacturing capacity ? Absolutely they have.

 Connaught Laboratories — founded in 1914 by Dr. John G. FitzGerald as the Anti-Toxin Laboratories at the University of Toronto — was at the forefront of global vaccine development for decades.

FitzGerald started his enterprise in a horse barn, using animals saved from the glue factory. There he churned out diphtheria treatments for the country’s poor.

Connaught was in a “financially weak position” when then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau nationalized the operation in the 1970s, Brown said.

The lab was pushed to make a profit rather than focus on research and development efforts — and the enterprise was surpassed by other pharmaceutical companies with deeper pockets, Brown said.

“They lost their market share and then along came the Conservatives and they sold it off,” he said.

The company, with its sprawling production facility in Toronto, was privatized by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney in the late 1980s.

So now what?

To lessen Canada’s dependence on foreign pharmaceutical production — “We never want to be caught short again,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last fall — the government has announced millions of dollars in new spending to build a new vaccine production plant at the National Research Council’s Royalmount facility in Montreal.

In February, the government announced a partnership with the Maryland-based company Novavax to produce its promising COVID-19 vaccine at this government-owned plant.

But the first Canadian-made Novavax vials won’t be produced until the end of this year at the earliest — well after the point when every Canadian is supposed to be inoculated against CONovavax hasn’t yet secured regulatory approval from any jurisdiction — but early clinical trial data suggest the company’s shot is highly effective against COVID-19.

Health Canada regulators are reviewing that data on a rolling basis — a company can submit information as soon as it becomes available — and a final decision could be made as soon as this summer.

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