Politics

MPs question what 'best reasonable effort' means for drug companies as vaccine deliveries dwindle

The fineprint of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca's vaccine delivery contract was cause for concern among members of the House of Commons defence committee on Friday as politicians questioned the military officer in charge of the distribution effort.

Head of logistics for vaccine rollout sticks with optimistic assessment of distribution timeframe

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The fineprint of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca's vaccine delivery contract was cause for concern among members of the House of Commons defence committee on Friday as politicians questioned the military officer in charge of the distribution effort.

Despite temporary cuts to upcoming shipments from both Moderna and Pfizer, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, head of pandemic logistics at the Public Health Agency of Canada, stuck with his optimistic assessment that the drug companies will meet their commitments to deliver millions of doses before the end of March.

His remarks were made as the British-Swedish pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca released a heavily redacted version of its contract with the European Commission.

Canada has ordered 20 million doses from the company.

Health Canada has not yet approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in this country, but the green light is expected within days. 

Pushing for details

The company's contract with the EU, released Friday, is full of references to a "Best Reasonable Effort" being made on issues like deliveries and volumes.

New Democrat defence critic Randal Garrison wanted to know if the contracts Canada has signed, with AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical companies, contained a similar clause.

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He said it was important for Canadians to know whether there was guaranteed delivery by certain dates, or if companies are simply to make their "best reasonable efforts" to meet the deadlines.

"It is a complicated answer," Fortin responded, adding the actual procurement is not his responsibility and he becomes answerable only when the vaccines are shipped.

"That is really my wheelhouse, coordinating the distribution."

Confidentiality clauses

Fortin said he is not tracking the "contractual arrangements," with companies. He said his team of military planners, working with the public health agency and procurement officials, receive forecasted shipments from the pharmaceutical companies. Those, in turn, are converted into distribution lists.

Health Canada said it can't release details of its contracts due to confidentiality clauses.

Garrison was sceptical and concerned.

"We don't really have any recourse under these contracts other than to accept whatever dates are promised," Garrison said. 

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Fortin said manufacturers are faced with "expected challenges" and have kept Canada informed of disruptions.

In Europe, it has been suggested only AstraZeneca can decide whether it's doing its best to meet deadlines and shipment terms. However, the EU argues "Best Reasonable Effort" is a legal term that only a judge can determine. 

The secrecy surrounding contracts has become a point of increasing political concern in Canada as more hurdles emerge to vaccine deliveries over the next few weeks. 

Military downplays COVID-19 increase

Also Friday, the military sought to downplay reports of a surge in COVID-19 cases among troops.

Earlier this week, The Canadian Press reported that nearly 250 military members have tested positive for the coronavirus this month, a substantial increase considering only 679 soldiers, sailors or aircrew tested positive in the previous nine months.

Maj-Gen. Mark Misener, the acting chief of staff for operation in the military's joint operations headquarters, said in comparison to the general population, the number of cases in the Armed Forces remains extremely low.

He added that those testing positive this month contracted the virus through the community or family members in Canada.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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