Canada is lagging in vaccine distribution, but that could change soon: Microbiologist

Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author, tells CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend that Canada was behind countries including Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States who are front runners in vaccine distribution — and explains why and where we could stand in a few months time.

Underestimation of approval time, COVID-19 vaccine sourcing hit Canada hard

Canada is lagging behind other countries but that could change in a few months time, says microbiologist and author Jason Tetro. (Victoria Jones/The Associated Press)

A microbiologist says Canada's in a position it's not used to being in when it comes to rolling out COVID-19 vaccines — lagging behind others.

Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author, told CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend that Canada was behind countries like Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States who are front runners in vaccine distribution. 

He said Canada was about 60th in terms of the percentage of Canadian's who've received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. In terms of full vaccinations, he added, Canada sits at 50th worldwide.

Tetro says there are two reasons why the country is lagging. 

"The first, believe it or not, is underestimating the speed at which the vaccines would have been developed and approved," he said, adding the president of Pfizer Canada recently said he didn't expect the vaccine to be approved until January or February, but the country's quick review process saw it approved in December.

"The problem for Pfizer was, all of a sudden, Canada wanted vaccines early, but so did the rest of the world," Tetro said. 

Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is still lagging behind many countries ---and Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States lead the pack. Microbiologist Jason Tetro joins host Shauna Powers to explain why Canada is behind in vaccinations ---and whether new vaccine shipments could get us back on track. 11:49

The demand for the vaccine around the world caused Pfizer to require an upgrade at their manufacturing plant leading to well publicized shortages in Canada. 

We just simply have not had the supplies and we've just been falling down the charts as a result.- Microbiologist Jason Tetro

Tetro said Moderna experienced a similar situation, reducing the number of vaccine shipments Canada saw.

The second reason Canada is lagging behind other countries in vaccine rollout stems from the fact our vaccines are sourced from Europe. 

He noted some are asking why Canada's government isn't sourcing from the United States, but he said President Joe Biden is continuing that country's protectionist policy of "America First."

"If it's approved in the United States, a vaccine, we don't see it. And that's essentially what's been happening," Tetro said. 

"We just simply have not had the supplies and we've just been falling down the charts as a result." 

He said he expected to see Canada's standing improve in the one-dose category, as the country's policy shifted to delay second-dose delivery by four months, which could lead to the country slipping further in the charts in that category.

3 factors at play for vaccine leaders

Canada, he said, simply cannot compete with three countries outpacing it — the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom — thanks to three factors.

Protectionist policies, such as the United States "America First" policy or the United Kingdom prioritizing vaccines manufactured there in a post-Brexit world — is an important factor that Tetro said is at play for countries leading in distribution. 

Data collection, he said, is contributing to Israel's strong showing during rollout, as it also is in the United Kingdom.

"They've been providing data from the vaccination process to the companies," Tetro said.  "That has given them the opportunity to be a front-of-line." 

Microbiologist Jason Tetro says a number of factors have contributed to the problems faced by Canada's vaccine distribution program. (Submitted by Jason Tetro)

He noted that here in Canada, some residents were upset about the COVID Alert app and raised concerns about the possibility of privacy invasion. Tetro speculated that if the federal government were to try to give information to pharmaceutical companies, the situation would "blow up" here. 

The third factor, Tetro said, is cash. 

Vaccines cost money, he said, and being able to buy those doses, sometimes at a premium (as is the case with Israel) puts countries at a higher priority with the vaccine manufacturers. 

A brighter future outlook

Now that the vaccine company's manufacturing capabilities are up to speed, Tetro said, things will get better in terms of Canada's vaccine rankings. 

He said the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine still hasn't been approved for use in the United States. 

Canada, he said, has already accepted hundreds of thousands of doses and will continue to accept doses while it takes the United States time to decide on the vaccine for use there.

In the time it takes for approval south of the border, he speculated, residents will get a lot of doses into their arms in Canada. 

Tetro estimated Canadians could see an end of the pandemic come the late summer, early fall period.

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend