The House

As vaccine deliveries lag, opposition MPs demand more than shots in the dark

Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is pushing back against calls for Ottawa to release the contracts it signed with coronavirus vaccine makers amid lingering concerns over delays in delivery.

'I think we've been transparent from the beginning,' Champagne says

The federal government is pushing back against calls to release the contracts it signed with coronavirus vaccine makers as opposition MPs demand changes to Canada's COVID-19 strategy. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is pushing back against calls for Ottawa to release the contracts it signed with coronavirus vaccine makers amid lingering concerns over delays in delivery.

"I think we've been transparent from the beginning," Champagne said in an interview airing on CBC Radio's The House Saturday. 

"There are parts of these contracts that are commercially sensitive," Champagne said, adding that he thought the terms had been negotiated on "a very favourable basis." 

The European Union published a redacted version of its contract with AstraZeneca last month. The U.S. has done the same, disclosing its contract with Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech: the only companies to date whose vaccines have been approved for use in Canada.

But both have delivered fewer doses than expected in recent weeks, citing production issues, raising concerns that Canadians are falling behind.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne and a panel of three opposition MPs discuss Canada’s vaccine rollout and COVID-19 strategy. 18:47

Reassurances doing little to appease opposition

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Friday that he remains in contact with drug company executives; once again assuring Canadians that his target of receiving six million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines by the end of March will be met.

Those reassurances are doing little to appease opposition parties.

They argue Canada lags far behind the UK and the United States in administering shots; vaccination centres established by the province are running out of doses to administer.

NDP health critic Don Davies says his party wants the government to release the contracts signed with vaccine makers.

"We'd like to see more transparency, more accountability and more credibility from the federal government. We think that's particularly important, in a time of national crisis, to build public confidence," he said during a panel discussion with other MPs on Saturday's program.

NDP health critic Don Davies says more transparency from the federal government would reassure provinces and territories worried about the country's vaccine rollout. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Davies said he wants to see the delivery schedules, and just how firm the orders are.

"You know, there's a big difference between a firm order and an option or sometimes just an agreement to agree. And I think this would give provinces and territories and Canadians some confidence beyond just an assurance, a political assurance, that we really are going to get the vaccines that people are counting on."

Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie said the Trudeau government should reopen discussions with the vaccine makers, arguing delivery shortfalls are threatening the provinces' ability to lift restrictions on business and other normal activities.

"And they're going to have to change their approach, be more aggressive in an effort to carry through on vaccine delivery and open up this country again," she said.

Canadians will view decisions as wise: Champagne

Canada has signed deals with seven vaccine makers in total, and this week Champagne announced this country finalized a deal with U.S.-based Novavax to begin production of its coronavirus vaccine at the end of the year.

"I think when Canadians look back six months from now they will see the decisions we're taking to attract a big, leading manufacturer to Canada, will be a wise decision," Champagne said in the interview. 

"The prime minister has been clear from day one," he added, that everyone who wants to be vaccinated by the end of September will be.

Earlier this week, Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced Canada finalized a deal with U.S.-based Novavax to begin production of its coronavirus vaccine. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Even so, the vaccine delays are having an impact on public confidence. A poll released this week by Abacus Data suggested as many Canadians disapprove of the Trudeau government's overall performance as those who approve of it.

Trudeau urged Canadians Friday to ignore what he called "a lot of noise" about the country's vaccine rollout, while acknowledging the uncertainty is contributing to the anxiety many Canadians are feeling.

"I want to reassure Canadians that we're on track."

A race between variants and vaccines

If the discussion in Ottawa over vaccines comes with the usual large dose of politics, public health officials warn the emergence of other, more contagious variants of the coronavirus add to the urgency of getting shots into people's arms.

"It's now a race between the variants and the vaccines," said Dr. Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health for Peel Region west of Toronto.

Peel saw its first case of B-1351, the variant first detected in South Africa, in a patient this week who hadn't travelled. Other parts of the country are also reporting cases of another variant that first emerged in the U.K.

In a separate interview on The House, Loh said the potential for community spread underscores the need for people to continue to take precautions such as staying home and wearing masks, especially as his region prepares for schools to reopen in two weeks and for the Ontario government to lift the state of emergency that has shut down businesses and other activities.

Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health, discusses what must happen to curb the spread of coronavirus variants and offers his optimistic view for the months ahead. 7:29

Loh also said governments have to consider paid sick leave to ensure people can afford to stay at home when they aren't well.

"I think it'll make a difference in people and hopefully for Ontario and Canada as well."

Loh also offered a bit of hope that Canada is at the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

"By the summer, hopefully if we stick to the precautions ... and we get more vaccines as promised, apparently through the spring, I think summer 2021 is going to look a little bit different than it did in 2020 and hopefully [that] will be a welcome solace and respite for us all."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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