A select few Canadians could receive the country’s first coronavirus vaccine shots as early as next week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that Canada has secured an agreement to receive its first batch of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine before the end of the year — up to 249,000 doses.
Pending Health Canada approval, “Canadians will be getting vaccinated starting next week,” Trudeau said at a news conference in Ottawa.
He said shipments will continue to arrive in 2021 and that the second batch will be reserved for the same people vaccinated in the first batch.
“We’re facing the largest immunization in the history of our country,” he said.
“This is no small task, which is why we have a clear plan. Our government, through the national operations centre, has been working with the provinces and territories to ensure we’re ready to roll out vaccine doses as soon as they’re approved and delivered.”
Canada has signed on to buy at least 20 million doses from the American pharmaceutical company, with the first four million tentatively slated to arrive in the first three months of 2021. The deal also gives Canada the option to buy another 56 million doses.
The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses.
The company’s final analysis from its clinical trials shows its vaccine is 95 per cent effective, has no serious side effects and protects older adults.
Health Canada’s review of Pfizer’s candidate is still ongoing but is expected to be completed any day now.
Trudeau said the vaccine’s extremely cold storage requirements set up “significant logistical challenges.” He said the goal is to have a batch on hand and properly stored in Canada upon approval from Health Canada.
“We hope Health Canada will approve the vaccine this week and that we’ll be able to deliver that vaccine next week,” he said.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, added that the process should reassure Canadians that “any vaccine that’s approved here is safe and effective.”
“That’s why we’re waiting on Health Canada’s decision,” he said.
After regulation, the timeline between distribution and vaccination will happen “very quickly,” according to Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, named vice-president of logistics at the Public Health Agency of Canada. “Perhaps one or two days in between,” he said.
Trudeau said distribution will be a “gradual process” that will flow through 14 identified sites across the country — one in each province and two in the four largest provinces (Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta). None of the early shipments are slated for the territories.
But before that can unfold, Procurement Minister Anita Anand said “Pfizer needs to be assured that the provinces and territories are ready to receive doses.”
“Once we are sure of their readiness, then we will be able to pass the baton to the provinces and territories,” she said. “The last kilometre, in fact, is with the provincial and territorial jurisdictions and we will carry the baton as far as we can along that line.”
It’s still not entirely clear where exactly the first shipments will go, and who will be the first to get vaccinated.
Last week, the National Advisory Committee on Immunizations recommended priority be given to a number of key groups: residents and workers in long-term care homes, front-line health workers, people over the age of 80, and people living in Indigenous communities.
Trudeau acknowledged it’s nearly impossible to deliver the Pfizer vaccine at its required -70 C temperature to remote communities given the logistics involved. He said leaders in Canada’s North have asked for vaccines that are easier to ship and store, such as Moderna’s candidate, which has a more moderate temperature requirement and is also in line for Health Canada’s approval.
Canada has been reviewing Pfizer’s vaccine alongside the United States and Europe, but the U.K. was the first Western country to give emergency authorization to a candidate.
Britain approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 2.
That intensified pressure on regulators in both the U.S. and Canada, and ultimately cleared the way for a massive vaccination campaign in the U.K., which is due to begin this week.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will meet on Dec. 10 to consider whether to give the vaccine the go-ahead.
Russia and China approved vaccines without waiting for large-scale efficacy tests to be completed.
Canada is reviewing three other vaccine candidates, including the one from Moderna. If approved, it could deliver two million doses to Canada in the first quarter of 2021.