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Feds asked vaccine makers to produce COVID-19 shots in Canada. All said no

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COVID-19 vaccine makers Canada signed contracts with last summer were asked if they could make the doses in Canada and all of them concluded they could not, Procurement Minister Anita Anand said Thursday.

Anand told the House of Commons industry committee that her department “proactively and repeatedly approached leading vaccine manufacturers” about the matter.

“We took this issue up with suppliers at every turn at the negotiating table to discern whether they would come to the table with this possibility of domestic biomanufacturing,” Anand said.

“The manufacturers reviewed the identified assets here in Canada and concluded that biomanufacturing capacity in this country, at the time of contract, which was last August and September, was too limited to justify the investment of capital and expertise to start manufacturing in Canada.”

Read more: Canada inks deal to produce Novavax COVID-19 vaccine

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Many of the COVID-19 vaccine makers sought partners to help produce their product but Canada’s biomanufacturing industry has shrunk considerably in the last half century and investments dried up.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced earlier this week Canada has a new contract with Maryland-based Novavax to eventually make doses of its vaccine at a new National Research Council facility going up in Montreal.

But that building won’t be finished until the summer and the new doses are not likely to start being pumped out until late fall at the earliest, long after Canada expects to import enough doses to vaccinate the entire population.

Vaccine manufacturing will be newly available at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan next year, and at Precision Nanosystems in British Columbia in 2023. But none of that helps Canada make doses of COVID-19 vaccines today.

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AstraZeneca sought deals with multiple countries to produce its vaccine last summer and fall, including China, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, India and South Korea. The company says it has a dozen supply chains now involving 15 different countries.

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NDP MP Don Davies questioned why Canada isn’t among them.

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“I raised this issue personally with AstraZeneca last August,” Anand replied. “That was not an issue they wanted to pursue with Canada at the time.”

Anand said Canada also wanted the quickest route to getting vaccine doses and that importing the doses was faster than trying to build capacity at home.

Moderna signed a 10-year exclusive agreement with Swiss-based Lonza, to make their vaccine. Lonza had to retool its production entirely to accommodate the new mRNA vaccine.

Read more: Novavax deal won’t speed up vaccine rollout, but experts still say it’s a ‘big win’

Delays getting Lonza’s second and third production line up and running in Switzerland is blamed for Moderna’s smaller deliveries this month. Moderna was to deliver 230,000 doses to Canada this week, but 180,000 arrived Thursday morning instead.

A spokeswoman for the company says it will still deliver two million doses total by the end of March. The company has delivered about half a million thus far, leaving 1.5 million for the only two shipments planned after this week before that deadline.

But Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander managing logistics of vaccine deliveries for the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Thursday Canada doesn’t expect to get the 249,600 doses it was initially allocated for the Feb. 22 shipment either.

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That comes after a month of smaller shipments from Pfizer-BioNTech, which was supposed to deliver more than 1.1 million doses between Jan. 18 and Feb. 14, and instead is delivering fewer than 340,000.

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Fortin said Pfizer is resuming more normal shipments on Feb. 15, with 335,000 doses coming that week, and almost 400,000 the week after.

Provincial governments are expressing their exasperation with the vaccine supply shortages and the lack of clear information from Ottawa about what is coming and when.

“I have advocated for both a consistent supply of vaccines and a consistent supply of information,” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said

“Unfortunately, we continue to get neither.”

He said he will be pushing Trudeau to do better during the weekly phone call between Trudeau and premiers Thursday night.

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Canada’s reliance on foreign production of vaccines came to the forefront in the last week when Europe _ where all of Canada’s current vaccines are made _ imposed export controls to protect their own supplies. Europe has assured Canada it won’t affect Canada’s shipments and Anand said so far that is true.

Canada’s shipments from Pfizer and Moderna this week were allowed to go out, and Anand said next week’s Pfizer shipment has been approved as well.

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In addition to the smaller supplies from Moderna this month, cold water was thrown quickly on news that Canada could soon get as many as 1.1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine from the global vaccine-sharing initiative known as the COVAX Facility.

The initiative, co-ordinated by the World Health Organization and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, told Canada Jan. 30, and then confirmed Feb. 2, that Canada would get between 1.9 million and 3.2 million doses by the end of June. That was to include 500,000 to 1.1 million by the end of March.

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But Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley said a delay in getting the vaccine licensed for use by the WHO means some of the expected doses won’t arrive now until the summer. Canada is expecting to get about 475,000 AstraZeneca doses in February and March.

Those deliveries are pending approval by WHO and Health Canada, which in the very final stages of its review. Another 1.4 million doses will be shipped in the spring.

Canada has also ordered 20 million doses from AstraZeneca directly, but Fortin was tight-lipped about when any of those doses will arrive.

“We are planning a number of contingencies,” he said.

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