Ottawa’s management of COVID-19 vaccine file leaves much to be desired

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Trudeau questioned on timing of failed COVID-19 vaccine deal with Chinese company CanSino'
Coronavirus: Trudeau questioned on timing of failed COVID-19 vaccine deal with Chinese company CanSino
WATCH: (Jan. 29, 2021) Speaking to reporters outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked exactly when he government knew a proposed partnership with Chinese company CanSino to procure their COVID-19 vaccine fell apart, and when that information was disclosed to the public. – Jan 29, 2021

Canadians are understandably feeling anxious and impatient when it comes to the question of vaccine availability.

After all, Canada is falling behind numerous other countries when it comes to overall percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated, we’ve seen disruptions in the delivery of the two vaccines that have been approved for use here, and we’re hearing all sorts of protectionist rumblings that could further disrupt — or block — vaccine shipments.

At the same time, though, there is some potential development that might help improve Canada’s situation: Health Canada is said to be close to a decision on whether to approve AstraZeneca’s vaccine and this past week has delivered some encouraging news with regard to the vaccines developed by two other companies with whom Canada has signed purchase agreements (Novavax and Johnson & Johnson).

How this all plays out remains to be seen, but much of Canada’s strategy at this point involves hoping for the best. To a large extent we are at the mercy of numerous outside forces and we shouldn’t lose sight of just how enormous an undertaking it is to develop, manufacture, distribute, and administer hundreds of millions of vaccines. Some tempering of expectations is reasonable.

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At the same time, however, “good enough” isn’t good enough. It’s fair to wonder whether the government has done all it possibly can to strengthen Canada’s position. It’s also more than fair to review the decisions that were made (or not made) over the last 12 months and to what extent they weakened our position.

For starters, a significant factor in Canada’s vulnerability is none of the vaccines we’ve approved or signed purchase agreements for are actually made in this country. It’s not a coincidence that the major companies we’re now counting on to produce and deliver vaccines to us have chosen to set up shop elsewhere. While the current government bears some responsibility for this state of affairs, it’s a problem with roots that run far deeper than the past 12 months.

However, it is fair to wonder to what extent the government has sought to maximize the few advantages we have in this area.

The company Sanofi, for example, has a manufacturing facility in Ontario. Now that Sanofi has shelved its own plans for a coronavirus vaccine, they’ve agreed to partner with Pfizer to help add to the global supply of the latter’s vaccine. It’s unclear whether that endeavour will include the Ontario plant, but it seems odd that the government would just play the role of spectator in all of this, considering how vital any sort of domestic production might be right now.

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Furthermore, there’s the question of how the government has treated upstart Canadian pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Developing a home-grown advantage should have been a top priority.

Two companies — Providence Therapeutics and Entos Pharmaceuticals — have both voiced their frustrations at how difficult it was to get Ottawa’s attention last year and how detrimental that lack of support was in not just developing their respective vaccines but also their production capability. Providence now has their vaccine candidate into phase 1 clinical trials and Entos will follow suit in the coming weeks, but both say they would be much further along had there been more meaningful federal support.

And, of course, there’s the question of the ill-fated and almost certainly ill-advised partnership with Chinese pharmaceutical company CanSino, which was announced with much fanfare last May by Prime Minister Trudeau.

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We have subsequently learned, though, that this deal went sideways very quickly — just days after the government first announced it, in fact. However, it wasn’t until August that the government publicly acknowledged that the agreement had fallen apart and would not proceed. That’s the same month, by the way, that the government announced it had signed purchase agreements with Pfizer and Moderna.

Putting aside the question of how much trust and faith we should have had in the Chinese government to begin with — especially on something as important as this — it’s fair to wonder how distracted the government was in trying to preserve this deal and to what extent it distracted from or delayed other efforts to secure vaccines expand our domestic capabilities.

Dwelling on the past doesn’t fix the problems in the here and now, but it all points to valid questions about how the government has been and is handling what is arguably the most important issue on the government’s plate at the moment.

Better is always possible, but even more so if mediocre is the starting point.

Rob Breakenridge is host of ‘Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge’ on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.


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