Canada’s top public health official says more than 300,000 unused doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine will be given back to the company after Health Canada announced it wouldn’t release the shipment over quality concerns.
“The company itself has the discretion to decide what it would do with it, but essentially, it will be given back to the company,” Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters on Tuesday.
“What actually happens to it afterwards? I can’t say. But from the supply arrangement perspective, Janssen will have to make up for the doses.”
Health Canada released a statement on Friday saying that it would no longer be accepting products or ingredients from the Emergent BioSolutions facility in Baltimore after a drug substance used in the shipment at the facility was found to have been produced haphazardly.
Canada is expected to receive another 300,000 doses by the end of the month, but whether or not the country will actually need any doses of the J&J vaccine to complete its vaccination rollout is up for debate.
To date, Canada has delivered more than 32.9 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to provinces and territories throughout the country and is expected to have 55 million by July — enough to vaccinate 80 per cent of its population of 37.59 million.
By the end of 2021, Canada is anticipating an excess of at lease 50 million doses of Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and J&J, and eventually up to 124 million of three other vaccines either this year or in 2022.
A majority of the country has also received at least one dose of a two-part vaccine series, which Tam said leaves a “much lower” window of opportunity to administer the J&J’s one-shot dose.
“You’re only looking at the population that’s never had a dose of vaccine,” she said. “So I think that there will be very limited use of this vaccine going into the future.”
Tam added that Brig.-Gen. Krista Brodie, who has replaced Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin as Canada’s head of vaccine distribution, is currently finalizing estimates with provinces and territories to determine whether they will need the J&J vaccine at all.
It is unclear at this point if the next shipment will come from the same U.S. plant that delivered the first batch of J&J shots or whether they will be shipped from another facility.
As a precaution, both the European Union’s drug regulator and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have made the decision to discard batches of the vaccine over contamination concerns.
The announcement comes as countries around the world race to fully vaccinate their populations in the wake of a possibly more transmissible strain of the virus, the Delta variant.
Delta, which was first identified in India, is proving to be the most infectious of the variants known so far, prompting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to delay plans to lift all public health restrictions next week.
Tam has set a tentative national goal to get 75 per cent of eligible Canadians vaccinated with one dose, and 20 per cent with both doses, before most outdoor restrictions can be lifted and to provide a “community level of resilience” against variants of concern that are more transmissible.
But “should we aim for higher? Yes, I think we should,” said Tam.
“Shoot for higher, shoot for goals, shoot for the stars. That gives us a better buffer for managing the COVID-19 situation.
“Between now and the two-dose goalpost, we have to be as careful as we can.”
— With files from the Canadian Press and the Associated Press