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U.S., Europe pre-ordered millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses. Why hasn’t Canada?

Coronavirus: Tam discusses who comprises vaccine task force, the role they play in finding COVID-19 vaccine
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer spoke about Canada's COVID-19 vaccine task force saying that it includes independent experts from outside the government and who also have industry knowledge in vaccine development with their role of providing advice.

As countries around the world are jockeying to secure a supply of vaccines under development for the novel coronavirus, many are striking advance deals with biopharmaceutical giants.

But Canada doesn’t appear to have done the same — at least, not yet.

Read more: World’s largest coronavirus vaccine study kicks off in U.S.

One expert says Canada could face challenges or a delay in getting its hands on a vaccine if it doesn’t act faster to pre-order doses of promising international vaccine candidates.

“We are now in a position where, even if everything goes beautifully, we’re going to get the vaccine months later than the U.S. and Europe, too,” said Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who holds a doctorate in immunology.

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“We don’t really have a major pharmaceutical industry in this country. There is no company that is going to be able to compete with the global companies that have entered this space already.

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A number of countries have pre-ordered millions of vaccine doses. The United Kingdom, for example, is first in line to receive 30 million doses from British drugmaker AstraZeneca, which plans to manufacture a promising COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University (if it proves successful).

France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have also signed a contract with AstraZeneca that would see the drugmaker deliver 400 million doses of that vaccine. The four-member group has said the supply would be made available to all European Union countries.

The United States, too, has struck a deal with AstraZeneca to set aside at least 300 million doses of the vaccine and also signed a contract with Pfizer for the first 100 million doses of a vaccine that company is working to develop. The U.K. has also pre-ordered from Pfizer and others.

With more than 100 vaccine candidates in progress, how do Canada’s efforts to procure a safe vaccine compare? Here’s what you need to know.

Canada and securing a COVID-19 vaccine

The Liberal government has so far pledged investments totalling over $1.2 billion in domestic and international COVID-19 medical research and vaccine development.

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In May, the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada announced it would work with China’s CanSino Biologics Inc. to produce and distribute a vaccine here in Canada, if the clinical trials are successful. Early trial results, published ahead of that vaccine’s testing in Canada, found it to be safe and effective at prompting an immune response to the virus.

What it’s like to participate in a COVID-19 vaccine trial
What it’s like to participate in a COVID-19 vaccine trial

Ottawa has also funded other domestic projects, including a vaccine candidate under development at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre.

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In anticipation of a vaccine, the federal government has also moved to stockpile a number of vaccine supplies, including millions of syringes and needles, saying it intends to purchase enough of those supplies to cover two doses of the vaccine for every Canadian.

“Certainly, there’s a lot of work being done to ensure when a vaccine becomes available, it can be administered in a pretty effective and efficient manner, from the time it becomes available,” infectious disease physician Isaac Bogoch told Global News’ Farah Nasser on Monday.

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Read more: Ottawa urged to greenlight funding for coronavirus vaccine research

But unlike the U.S. and the U.K., the federal government hasn’t signed any advance purchase agreements with any other international players.

While Attaran believes the CanSino vaccine will work, he argued it likely won’t be the first one to the finish line — and it’s not the only international candidate with potential.

Attaran said the research team behind the Oxford vaccine has been “grinding away” at its adenovirus vaccine technology for years, which gave it a “jump start” in the COVID-19 context.

Read more: Here’s when experts say Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine could be ready

Aside from that one, however, there are other leading vaccine candidates internationally, based on both older, well-established technology and newer, more “radical” technology, Attaran said.

He said Canada is jeopardizing its access to a timely vaccine supply the longer it holds out on signing a contract with major biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies backing vaccine candidates, like Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson.

Is Canada looking to make vaccine pre-orders?

The federal government says it’s “closely monitoring vaccine development efforts” both in Canada and internationally and suggested it is exploring making pre-orders of vaccine doses.

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“The Government of Canada … is working to negotiate advanced purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers to secure supply for Canadians as soon as it is feasible,” said a statement from Health Canada, which didn’t specify how many negotiations are ongoing.

With a number of vaccine candidates in progress worldwide, it’s “not possible” right now to know which ones will be successful and because of that, Ottawa is supporting “multiple organizations,” the statement said.

“By supporting vaccine research and development, bio-manufacturing requirements to support large-scale production, enhancing capacity and access for clinical trials, and seeking solutions for domestic capacity, Canada will be in a better position to rapidly access a vaccine, once one becomes available,” Health Canada said.

Read more: 72% of Canadians support mandatory coronavirus vaccine, Ipsos poll suggests

A vaccine task force, comprised of experts independent from government and who specialize in vaccination, vaccine development and infectious diseases, is reviewing the options and reporting to the federal ministers of health and innovation, Canada’s chief public health officer said on Tuesday.

“Ultimately, the spending and how the money is spent is up to the government itself, but the task force will provide advice,” Dr. Theresa Tam said.

“I think one can appreciate that with over 120 candidates right now globally, with quite a number of them being Canadian candidates as well, there’s a lot of evolving information every single day.”

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Coronavirus: Tam says Canada’s COVID-19 curve is seeing an ‘uptick’
Coronavirus: Tam says Canada’s COVID-19 curve is seeing an ‘uptick’

Tam added she believes the task force meets two or three times weekly to “review the ongoing evidence” and the options are “all being considered and evaluated.”

“There are active discussions right now going on with a whole range of manufacturers that have promising candidates but I can’t speak as to where these discussions have got to,” she said, echoing Health Canada.

Global News also reached out to Public Services and Procurement Canada for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

— With files from Global News’ Emerald Bensadoun, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press