Who goes first? Anxiety over vaccine timing puts Trudeau government on the spot

An eruption of 'vaccine nationalism' in Ottawa this week put the Trudeau government on the defensive over its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans. The truth about which countries get first crack at a working vaccine is a little more complicated than it looks.

Canadians may have to accept they won't be first in line — but that doesn't mean they'll be happy about it

Because Canada is short of domestic vaccine production capacity, it may have to wait longer than some other countries to receive doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press)

Mexico's ambassador to Canada apparently watches question period — and it seems he did not like what he saw and heard on Tuesday.

"Mexico has worked hard to ensure equitable access to vaccines for all," Juan José Gómez Camacho tweeted on Tuesday night. "We believe a pandemic is a time to promote solidarity, rather than showing selfishness, which could endanger us all."

The ambassador tagged Conservative leader Erin O'Toole and Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel at the end of his message. During question period on Tuesday, Rempel dwelled upon reports suggesting that Mexico's first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine might arrive before Canada's first vaccinations.

Mexico was really just an unlucky bystander caught up in an outbreak of vaccine nationalism in Ottawa this week. The hope offered by glowing reports on the leading vaccine candidates has given way to questions about when exactly Canada will receive its first shipment of a vaccine, and how close to the front of the line Canada might be among the 195 countries of the world.

Those questions represent significant risks for the Liberal government — even if Canadians ultimately have to accept that they can't necessarily expect to go first.

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu, left, and Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel, right. (Adrian Wyld/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The impetus for the Official Opposition's questions on Tuesday was the prime minister's acknowledgement that other countries will be able to start vaccinating their citizens before Canada.

"The very first vaccines that roll off an assembly line in a given country are likely to be given to citizens of that particular country," Justin Trudeau told a morning news conference. "But shortly afterwards, they will start honouring and delivering on the contracts that they signed with other countries, including with Canada."

WATCH: Federal government can't guarantee vaccination timeline

Ottawa can’t guarantee timeline for COVID-19 vaccine rollout

3 years ago
Duration 1:59
Canada has already pre-purchased millions of doses of multiple COVID-19 vaccines, but the government cannot guarantee when Canadians will get them. And some caution it could be months before this country can begin the distribution process.

Specifically, Trudeau suggested that the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany might get the first vaccines. In each of those countries, it has been suggested that vaccinations could start in December.

On Wednesday, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told CBC's Power & Politics that Canada should "start to receive" vaccine doses in January. That might not immediately amount to a huge difference — but this week's debate offers just a hint of how the international rollout of a vaccine might be used to keep score between nations.

It's not clear yet whether the Trudeau government could have done something over the past eleven months to change Canada's place in the pecking order, or whether Canada will even receive vaccines markedly later than most other countries.

Trudeau said that "Canada no longer has any domestic production capacity for vaccines" — but that's not quite right. This country does have vaccine manufacturing facilities — GlaxoSmithKline has one near Montreal and Sanofi Pasteur operates in Toronto. What Canada doesn't have is a production facility connected to any of the current leading candidates for a COVID-19 vaccine.

'Horrendously complex'

Those major manufacturers are also producing other vaccines. And even if they had excess capacity, setting up a new facility to deliver a new vaccine would be a complicated, time-consuming endeavour.

"Manufacturing vaccines is horrendously complex," said Robert Van Exan, a former executive with Sanofi Pasteur in Toronto and now a consultant on immunization policy. "And you don't just take it from one facility to another."

Trudeau's government has spent federal money to boost research and manufacturing capacity at facilities in Saskatchewan and Quebec, which could lead to vaccine production next year. In the meantime, the government has signed contracts with a number of international suppliers.

During question period on Wednesday, Trudeau pointed to what he called the "most diverse portfolio of vaccines anywhere in the world" (a claim recently supported by the Economist) and insisted that his government's approach was informed by experts in the field (the Liberals have established a vaccine task force).

Rempel asked whether the government had attempted to negotiate the right to produce those vaccines in Canada. Trudeau said the government "looked at different ways of ensuring domestic production as much as we were able to," but it was not something it could "move forward on."

WATCH: Opposition leaders push for vaccine rollout plan

Opposition leaders press Trudeau on vaccine rollout plans

3 years ago
Duration 2:16
The leaders of Canada's three opposition parties questioned the Liberal government's handling of COVID-19 vaccines during question period in the House of Commons Tuesday.

Anyone looking for errors or oversights in this aspect of Canada's pandemic response might have to look a little deeper into the past.

"I think what it shows, if anything, is a lack of foresight in our pandemic planning," Van Exan said. He suggested the federal government could have invested years ago in reserving manufacturing capacity at a domestic facility — one that would be needed only in the event of a pandemic.

In any pandemic, Van Exan said, the country where the vaccine is being manufactured will insist on getting the first doses.

"The problem is you can't make enough in the first months to do the whole world," he said. "It's going to take years to make enough vaccine to do the whole world. So there's going to be a rollout of this and there will be some who get it sooner and some get it later."

Politicians might be worrying now that Canada might not get the vaccine as fast as other countries — but just three weeks ago, some observers were warning that wealthy countries like Canada were buying up too many doses and pushing developing countries to the back of the queue.

Mexico's government has suggested it might have the vaccine in December. But a lot about international vaccination efforts is still up in the air — when the first doses will arrive, how much individual countries will get in their first shipments, how quickly each country can vaccinate its entire population.

The number of viable vaccines might increase and supplies might progressively expand. But Van Exan contributed to a study by the Center for Global Development that estimated in October it could take until 2023 for every person in the world to be vaccinated. Various factors could push that into 2024.

It is easy to see the opposition heaping scorn upon the Trudeau government if there's a significant vaccine gap between Canada and a large number of other countries. Envious eyes will no doubt be cast at the first doses deployed in the United States, if Americans do see a vaccine before we do. But in that respect, Canadians might be like citizens in many other countries.

The whole world is living and dying with the same pandemic. This week's debate might have alerted Canadians to the fact that they are not necessarily entitled to first crack at what will be — at least initially — a limited supply of a life-saving vaccine, and that there's no particular reason Canada should get to go ahead of Mexico.

But Trudeau will still be judged by what his government did to ensure Canadians got their share as fast as possible. And the further Canada is from the front of the line, the easier it will be to criticize.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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