Pharmacies running low on AstraZeneca vaccine as supply issues persist

With demand far outstripping supply, wait lists at Ottawa pharmacies are filling up while others are being forced to cancel appointments.

Ontario Pharmacists Association CEO estimates pharmacies will run out of doses within 7 to 10 days

Pharmacist Zaineb Hassan prepares to administer COVID-19 vaccine doses in Ottawa last wek. Pharmacies across the city are seeing their supply of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine run out. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Léa Gagné says she cried when she secured a COVID-19 vaccine appointment at an Orléans pharmacy because it meant she was one step closer to safely hugging her friends and family. 

But Gagné's appointment for her first shot of the Astra-Zeneca-Oxford vaccine — originally scheduled for Monday morning — was cancelled last Wednesday, after the IDA Pharmacy said it hadn't received any new doses that week and didn't know when its next shipment would arrive.

"I can appreciate that they're doing the best they can. But I hope my time will come soon," said the 60-year-old public servant at Service Canada.

Gagné's situation is playing out across the city as pharmacies contend with a countrywide shortage of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

With demand far outstripping supply for the only vaccine pharmacies have been administering in Ontario, wait lists in Ottawa are filling up, while some pharmacies have been forced to cancel appointments.

Looming shortage

Renu Pillay, owner of Whole Health Pharmacy in the Glebe, said he currently has over 4,000 people waiting to receive the vaccine.

He received two shipments from the province in the last week and a half, totalling 300 doses.

Pillay said he has administered around 130 doses so far, and at the current pace, his pharmacy will run out of doses by the end of this week or early next week.

"We've been told that there's a shortage and we may not get more for quite a while. And there's no indication how many or when we'll get it again," said Pillay. 

A vial of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine at an Ottawa pharmacy in early April 2021, soon after the province's pharmacy pilot project expanded to the national capital. (Rémi Authier/Radio-Canada)

The supply crunch comes as Ontario's vaccination campaign gains speed but deliveries of AstraZeneca dry up. 

According to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Ontario has received 900,800 of the 2.3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that have arrived in Canada so far.

As of Sunday morning, there were 265,819 unused doses left in the province, with additional deliveries not expected until the end of May, according to Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott. 

Ontario was expecting two deliveries from India mid-April and early May, but both were delayed when the country suspended vaccine exports in order to deal with its own devastating surge in COVID-19 cases.

Pfizer pilot project

Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA), is warning there will be a lull in vaccinations at pharmacies unless the province starts sending them doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

He said he expects all 1,400 pharmacies participating in Ontario's vaccine rollout will administer all their AstraZeneca doses within seven to 10 days.

Those with more capacity to administer doses will run out even faster, he said. 

"That's a good news story in the sense that we were able to quickly get the shots in arms," said Bates. "But it also introduces the potential of a supply interruption."

Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, says some pharmacies could begin administering shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as early as this week under a new pilot project. (CBC)

Pharmacies across Ontario experienced a rush of people seeking appointments after the province lowered the age eligibility for AstraZeneca from 55 to 40 in mid-April. The change meant another 2.8 million adults were eligible to receive the shot at pharmacies and primary care settings.

To contend with the looming supply disruption, Bates said the OPA is working with the health ministry on a pilot project that could see pharmacies in hot spot regions begin administering the Pfizer vaccine as early as this week.

"It will allow us to get all the distribution and logistics down and then have a broader roll out," Bates said.

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