Pfizer Canada head says governments, not NHL, top priority for coronavirus vaccines

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Head of Pfizer Canada says current Canadian policies stalling domestic pharmaceutical innovation
WATCH: Head of Pfizer Canada says current Canadian policies stalling domestic pharmaceutical innovation – Dec 13, 2020

The head of Pfizer Canada says the company is focusing on selling the highly coveted and limited doses of its coronavirus vaccine to governments, not private corporations — including the NHL.

And he suggests he won’t be skipping any queues to get the shot himself.

In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, Pfizer Canada CEO Cole Pinnow said while the pharmaceutical giant “appreciates the interest” in its novel mRNA vaccine, it wants to make sure doses are distributed as equitably as possible, and believes governments are best-placed to do that.

“If private organizations, companies or someone like the NFL or the NHL approached you to buy vaccines, would you sell to them?” Stephenson asked.

“Right now, we are fully committed and built our global supply plan based upon the contracts that we’ve signed with governments, and so we’re really deferring to the governments to figure out what the best way is to allocate their product,” Pinnow responded.

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“I appreciate the interest. We absolutely would love to respond to all the individual inquiries we’ve received, but we really feel that government is in the best position to determine an equitable distribution among its population.”

He continued: “We’re excited to see that they’re choosing the most vulnerable first and that general Canadians such as myself will wait patiently until the vaccine is ready and available for us.”

Pinnow’s comments come after a milestone week that saw the company’s coronavirus vaccine distributed for the first time in the United Kingdom, and get approved from Health Canada for use here.

The first doses of the vaccine are set to arrive in Canada on Monday.

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Provinces are expected to begin rolling out vaccinations to critical priority groups as early as Tuesday, with the focus on front-line health workers, the elderly and those working in long-term care homes.

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But a report last week that the NHL was considering privately purchasing the precious vaccines for all the players involved in its 2021 season prompted widespread criticism and questions over whether a private company should be able to jump the queue for commercial interests.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu was asked about that possibility on Friday and said the government does not have the mechanisms to stop private corporations from entering into commercial contracts.

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Vaccines aren’t classified as a controlled substances that could be subject to import or export controls.

The fact that the vaccine is made using a new technology also adds to the scarcity — and high demand.

Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine doesn’t inject a deactivated form of the coronavirus. Instead, it uses a component of the virus DNA called messenger RNA that basically contains the genetic instructions for the human body to make the specific spike protein of the coronavirus.

By doing this, the immune system learns to recognize and respond to that specific protein, meaning it can more quickly mount a response if the virus enters the body.

COMMENTARY: How Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines work

However, because the technology is so new, the capacities to manufacture it are limited.

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Canada has no facilities equipped to do so, and Pinnow suggested federal rules aimed at keeping drug prices low are part of the reason why.

“We’d really like to partner with the government to find ways to change their current policies that really deter the capital investment that brings innovative technology in the pharmaceutical sector to Canada,” he said.

We’re very concerned with the proposed changes to the pricing reform, PMPRB, as it’s called, that is due to go to and go into effect on January 1st.”

The Patented Medicine Prices Review Board monitors drug prices in the country with an eye to keeping them affordable for Canadians, and ensuring companies with monopolies on an essential drug can’t keep raising the prices just to make a profit.

It’s been around since 1987 but new guidelines giving it more enforcement powers are set to kick in on Jan. 1, 2021.

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Procurement Minister Anita Anand gave no indication the government is considering changing the new guidelines, and said the priority is making sure drug prices remain affordable for Canadians.

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She added that’s why the government is still eyeing how to create a pharmacare plan.

“It is part of our government’s commitment to assisting vulnerable communities, assisting Canadians across the board to go further down the line towards a pharmacare program,” she said.

“So it’s very much of an issue that we’ve been taking on board, and it’s one of the reasons why I felt it so important to run for public office. And it’s an issue that I’ve heard in my constituency as well.”

The federal government said in the September throne speech it remains committed to that plan.

However, a timeline for doing so remains unclear.

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