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John Ivison: Good news on the COVID vaccine front, but best to keep the celebrations in check for now


By any measure, Friday was a good news day for Canadians.

Health Canada approved AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which will mean millions more Canadians will be protected against COVID sooner.

The inoculation timelines released by provinces like Ontario are already obsolete, as the 20 million AstraZeneca doses are added to ramped up deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

There will be concerns about AstraZeneca’s efficacy rate – 62 per cent – which is considerably lower than Pfizer’s or Moderna’s (both of which are 95 per cent effective.)

There is already unease that it may not work against more contagious new variants. A small study in South Africa suggested AstraZeneca’s vaccine is only minimally effective against the variant spreading in that country and the government there halted its use earlier this month.

But, as Supriya Sharma, medical officer at Health Canada, said, all vaccines are good. “If you look across the clinical trials, the number of people who have died who got the vaccine was zero; the number hospitalized was zero and the number of people who died from adverse effects was zero,” she said.

Germany and France have recommended AstraZeneca should not be used for people over age 65. Sharma conceded that fewer than 10 per cent of Health Canada’s clinical trial came from that age group. But she pointed out that other regulatory bodies, including the World Health Organization, have cleared the vaccine for use in all age groups over 18.

My 51-year-old sister in Scotland joked about receiving “the poor man’s vaccine.” But she said she has no ill effects, other than a slightly sore arm, and she’s glad she got it. Sharma cited a study from that country that suggested the hospitalization rate among AstraZeneca vaccine recipients fell by 94 per cent four weeks after the first jab.

More good news might soon follow, with the approval of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which sounds as if it is imminent. Sharma said the regulator needs some more information on manufacturing from the company but the process “can go quite quickly.”

It was a cheery Justin Trudeau who shared the news with reporters on Friday morning. “I’m happy to be here,” he said, and looked it. “Mass vaccinations are coming and spring is on the way.”

He said that vaccine delivery hit 643,000 doses this week and will soon receive a boost of an additional two million doses from a deal with Serum Institute of India and Mississauga’s Verity Pharmaceuticals, which is producing a variation of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The first shipment of half a million doses will arrive “in weeks,” he said. There were concerns that Serum would not be able to supply Canada. The company’s chief executive, Adar Poonawalla, tweeted earlier this week that Serum has been “directed to prioritize the huge needs of India” first.

However, it appears that Trudeau’s recent phone call with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, may have borne fruit. In his comments, Trudeau recognized the support of the Indian government in securing doses for Canada. What he has promised in return we will find out in due course.

The addition of the Serum vaccine to the existing Pfizer and Moderna deliveries will mean Canada is set to receive 6.5 million doses by the end of March.

Theresa Tam, the chief medical officer of Canada, said in her presentation that 1.7 million doses have already been administered and no vaccine safety issues have been identified.

In addition to the Serum supply, the bulk of the AstraZeneca vaccine – 20 million doses – will come in the second quarter of the year, Trudeau said.

However, my colleague Ryan Tumilty, threw a bucket of cold reality on the euphoria by asking whether Trudeau had received any assurances from President Joe Biden about vaccine supply, given AstraZeneca’s 20 million doses will be manufactured in the United States. That was the cue for the prime minister to go off-script, something apparent by the sudden appearance of “ums” and “ahs” in his speech.

“Um..so far, all..ah… of our indications are that those vaccine doses are…ah….going to be arriving in Canada as…ah… scheduled during the…ah… second quarter,” he said.

Maybe we should hold off breaking out the confetti poppers for now. On December 8, ex-president Donald Trump introduced an executive order that called on vaccine manufacturers to fulfil U.S. contracts before exporting doses. When Canada saw its supply dry up because of manufacturing problems in Europe, neither Pfizer nor Moderna made up the shortfall from its plants in the U.S.

Biden has not overturned Trump’s order and has committed himself to an America First policy.

For now, the Trudeau government thinks Canada’s supply of AstraZeneca vaccine is secure.

The belief is that the executive order is not binding and does not prevent pharmaceutical companies from entering into bilateral agreements with other countries.

“The U.S. has no closer friend that Canada,” Biden said this week.

He is clearly well disposed toward this country and its prime minister. But he has not committed to carving out a deal with Canada on vaccines.

The Canadian position is that since there is no blanket export ban, there is no need for an exemption.

Let’s hope that confidence is well founded.

The last time we faced a protectionist president blocking the export of medical supplies was last spring when Trump shut off the supply of N95 masks and ventilators. At the time, Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador in Washington, recommended the prime minister’s chief of staff point out to the White House that America relies on Canada too – for example, the three hospitals in Maine that depend on Canadian electricity.

It would be a particularly bad omen for the special relationship if the prime minister is forced to browbeat his new best friend by threatening to pull the plug on Maine emergency rooms to keep the vaccine flowing.

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