The United States is aiming to distribute about 40 million doses of coronavirus vaccines this year, with 100 million Americans expected to be vaccinated by the end of March 2021, according to U.S. health officials.
“There is a lot riding on the success of this vaccine,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said.
With the highest number of cases and deaths in the world, the U.S. has struggled to contain the spread of the pandemic.
Gripped by a second wave, Canada also began vaccinating its health-care workers and people in long-term care homes this week, with up to 249,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine slated for December.
Ottawa is also expected to receive another 168,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine this month, pending regulatory approval from Health Canada.
Both vaccines require two doses per person given three to four weeks apart.
The U.K., which was the first country to approve and roll out Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month, has so far received enough doses to vaccinate 400,000 people with two shots.
These numbers, however, pale in comparison to the U.S., which also has a four times larger population than Britain and eight times that of Canada.
The U.S. had a head start
Months of pre-planning, billions of dollars in investment, infrastructure and manufacturing ability has given the U.S. a head start in the so-called vaccine race, political analysts and health experts say.
“The purchasing mechanism that the government used through Operation Warp Speed to secure those doses likely has a lot to do with how quickly the U.S. will be able to vaccinate its population,” Adalja told Global News.
He noted that the U.S. target for immunization was “ambitious,” but possible, given that nursing home residents and front-line health workers who are first in line, can be easily inoculated at their premises and workplaces respectively.
Operation Warp Speed, which is a collaboration of the Department of Health and the Department of Defense (DoD), was launched in May to aid with the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The U.S. Congress has directed almost $10 billion to this effort.
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On the other hand, Canada has invested more than $1 billion to have access to up to 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from seven different manufacturers, including a minimum of 20 million doses from Pfizer.
According to the deals signed so far, Canada has ordered the world’s largest number of COVID-19 vaccine doses per capita, but only one of these has been approved.
And since it is not manufacturing any coronavirus vaccines at home, Canada has to rely on shipments from Europe.
That is because Canada has a limited production capacity, especially for the new mRNA technology used for Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, adding another layer to the logistical labyrinth of the country’s rollout that has also set off political turmoil.
The opposition and political pundits have taken issue with the government, questioning whether Canada is at a disadvantage compared to the U.S. and other European nations.
“Did you even bother to negotiate the right for Canada to manufacture these vaccines at home?” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner asked during question period in the House of Commons last month.
Trudeau replied Canada has the best portfolio of vaccines purchased in the world and blamed the previous government for the lack of domestic production.
In a press conference this week, Public Service and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said: “The mass production of vaccines is occurring outside of our borders and so our access to these vaccines takes into account that fact.”
“So, we’re working with a number of complicated variables here,” she added.
Some analysts say the biggest challenge is not getting the vaccine inside the country, but distributing it to the population.
Pfizer’s vaccine requires cold storage at minus 70 degrees.
Transporting it across Canada’s large landmass will be challenging, Dr. Mark Poznansky, director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, said.
“When you have a large map and a scattered population that raises its own challenges,” he told Global News.
Since the start of the pandemic, Canada has reported more than 488,000 cases compared to 17.2 million in the U.S.
While there are fewer people infected per capita in this country, Canada “still needs an urgency about getting the vaccine rolled out as well as possible at this time to prevent many more infections,” Poznansky said.
Meanwhile, vaccine distribution has also raised some ethical concerns.
A new report, published this month by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said that rich countries have “hoarded” enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over, possibly depriving billions of people in poorer areas.
According to a Reuters investigation published on Wednesday, COVAX, the global effort to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries, faces a “very high” risk of failure, potentially leaving nations home to billions of people with no access to vaccines until as late as 2024.
That is because the program is struggling from a lack of funds, supply risks and complex contractual arrangements, which could make it impossible to achieve its goals, the investigation found.