OTTAWA — Canada’s first vaccinations against COVID-19 could begin happening as early as next week, pending Health Canada approval.

Canada will be receiving an initial batch of up to 249,000 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine before the end of December, with the first shipment expected next week. This means people could begin receiving vaccinations, on a priority basis, very soon after.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Monday on Parliament Hill, alongside Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo, and Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin.

n French, the prime minister said the administration of vaccines once on Canadian soil, will happen quickly.

“This will move us forward on our whole timeline of vaccine rollout, and is a positive development in getting Canadians protected as soon as possible,” said Trudeau.

“It is a gradual process that is going to begin… next week. But let us remember at the beginning there will be smaller amounts of vaccines, because we are both standing up our delivery mechanisms, but also because manufacturers are limited in what they’re able to produce for this vaccine,” said the prime minister. “The large mass-manufacturing will be happening into 2021, but with these 249,000 doses coming in December, we will be able to begin on the most vulnerable populations and make sure that we have the logistical grounding foundation in place to be able to deliver right across the country over the first months of 2021.”

While the first vaccines could be administered sooner than expected, it will still be a long while before the public can let their guard down.

“I think it’s a huge tool in our tool shed but it’s certainly not the only one available to us,” CTV News Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy told Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme.

“The light at the end of that tunnel has become a lot brighter but that tunnel is still very long. There’s still going to be a lot of gaps between people who are immunized and not, and it can take anywhere from three weeks to three months for immunity to be fully constituted, so we’ve got a lot of hard work to do yet.”

Fortin — who is leading the National Operations Centre within the Public Health Agency of Canada that’s focused on the logistics of the rollout — said that within one or two days of shipments arriving in Canada, vaccines could be ready to be administered, contingent on the vaccine being deemed safe for use in Canada.

“Based on the fact that once you receive the product, you have to unpack, thaw, decant, mix. So that’s a relatively fast process for the health professional,” Fortin said.

In an interview on CTV’s Power Play, Anand denied political pressures played a role in reworking the Pfizer agreement. Trudeau had earlier tried to temper expectations around how quickly Canadians could have access to vaccines, given the lack of domestic manufacturing capacity in this country.

APPROVAL IMMINENT?

Health Canada has not yet approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine candidate for use in this country, though senior officials have signalled that the independent agency is close to completing its efficacy and safety assessment and it could come this week. It began scrutinizing the data from Pfizer’s clinical trials in early October.

The United Kingdom has approved the vaccine for use, and the United States Food and Drug Administration is set to give the pharmaceutical giant’s vaccine the green light to roll out to Americans this week.

Health Canada’s chief medical adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma said last Thursday that the review of Pfizer’s vaccine candidate is progressing “very well” but the agency was awaiting some “key” information coming in the next few days, including quality assurance checks on the specific batches destined for Canada.

Meanwhile, those in the scientific community have been trying to get the message out to Canadians hesitant to take a vaccine developed so quickly that no corners were cut.

“There’s always been a little bit of concern that these have been rushed through, but we can feel reassured that these trials have been done on thousands and thousands of people,” Sharkawy said.

“I’d be ready to roll up my sleeves tomorrow if the opportunity presented itself.”

The initial doses will arrive in a series of shipments and altogether would be enough to fully vaccinate approximately 124,500 Canadians, as the vaccine requires two needles, weeks apart.

Trudeau said he anticipates the “vast majority” of the initial doses will go towards both the first and second shots for the first batch of recipients, but the government is anticipating a steady stream of additional doses in the weeks and months ahead.

Anand said on CTV’s Power Play that one ongoing “very live” issue is setting up a system to record doses administered, and where they were given, in order to be able to keep track of who has received their full inoculation. She said there is a need to have this sorted before the vaccinations begin.

“Part of the challenge of the logistical delivery is to see whether those doses can be properly stored and delivered a few weeks later to the same people. That’s what Pfizer as a company is looking for. You can imagine that any responsible company like Pfizer is going to want to make sure that none of their vaccines are going to be wasted through inability to properly store, transport, or administer. Every single dose of those vaccines are extraordinarily precious right now,” said the prime minister.

COVID-19 vaccines will be offered to Canadians free of charge, will not be mandatory, and will eventually be available to all who want to be vaccinated.

These early vaccines will be the first allotment of what was Canada’s deal with Pfizer for up to 76 million doses. Initially, the country is only anticipating receiving up to four million of those doses by March 2021.

In total, Canada has signed deals with seven vaccine manufacturers, four of which are currently being scrutinized by Health Canada. If all vaccines pan out, Canada would have access through its contracts to 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Our goal continues to be to ensure that Canada has the vaccines, logistics systems, and supplies in place to further combat COVID-19, and we will not rest until we climb this mountain,” Anand said during Monday’s press conference.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is recommending that residents and staff of long-term care, assisted living and similar facilities; individuals aged 80 years and older; health-care and personal support workers with the highest exposure risk; and Indigenous communities get first access to vaccines.

Trudeau said that these Pfizer vaccines and all eventual doses are expected to be divided up between provinces and territories on a per capita basis.

“Every province and territory might have a slightly different experience, and so how they receive the vaccines and prioritize and actually deliver those initial doses to their population I think certainly will be based on their own experience and what they determine is best for their individual context,” said Dr. Njoo.

PROVINCES NEED TO BE READY

Anand said on Monday that Pfizer needs to be assured that the provinces and territories are ready to receive those doses before the shipments happen.

“Once we are assured of provincial and territorial readiness to receive. Then we will be able to pass the baton to the provinces and territories,” said Anand.

On Monday, provinces made assurances that they will be ready.

“Quebec vaccination will start as soon as we receive the first doses,” said Quebec Minister of Health and Social Services Christian Dube, adding that of the first allotment, he expects his province to receive 4,000 doses, enough for 2,000 Quebecers, mainly in long-term care homes. He is then anticipating enough vaccines between Dec. 21 and Jan. 4 to vaccinate between 22,000 and 28,000 people. “Which is a good number,” he said.

Ontario outlined its plan for who will be prioritized to receive its initial vaccine doses on Monday.

“In our phase one, we want to get the vulnerable, and the health-care workers, and we know that we will have more demand in those two groups than we will have vaccines to satisfy, so we can’t do it all at once,” said chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force, retired Gen. Rick Hillier on Monday.

“So we will go for example towards the people in long-term care homes, who are in the hot zones, who are in the lockdown zones… And we will go for places where there is congregate living, where there is communal dining, where there is more than one person sharing a room, and we’ll go into places where they’ve had problems with COVID-19 and suffered tragically from it,” Hillier said.

In an interview on CTV’s Power Play, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey said that in-province work is underway to make sure the vials can be safely transported.

Furey said that he first got the head’s up about the timeline for the initial doses on a Sunday night phone call with representatives from the federal government, though Hillier said he first heard the news on Monday.

“This is a trial for the rest of the world, so we’re anxiously watching what’s happening in other jurisdictions, but certainly some of the more stable vaccines would seem to be more palatable option, especially when you’re considering the rural and coastal communities of Labrador which obviously have higher risk of vulnerability with respect to Indigenous communities,” he said.

Fortin said that this week a “dry run” of the Pfizer rollout will take place, to ensure that there are no kinks in the ultra-cold storage delivery chain, including by the health professionals who will ultimately be handling the shots. Fortin had said on Friday that the dress rehearsal was to happen Monday.

“Pfizer, the Public Health Agency and the provinces are working together to finalize preparations at the first 14 vaccination sites this week,” Trudeau said. These sites are largely in major cities across the country—one in each province, and two in each of the four largest provinces—with plans to add additional sites in the months ahead. For the initial rollout, vaccine recipients may have to travel to these centralized sites to be given the Pfizer vaccine.

The dry run will be used to confirm the ordering, shipping and importation processes, and the initial dry run will use a shipping container with dry ice and a data-logger to simulate a shipment of the vaccine, according to the government.

“Boxes are in the air right now. They left Belgium and they’re on their way to the next transit node in the cold chain. They’re being monitored, so we will learn — this is one way this week where we will learn how the process will flow and if adjustments need to be made — Pfizer will learn just as much,” he said.

Fortin’s plan has been to be prepared to deploy the rollout by mid-December, in anticipation of Canada’s vaccine administration effort commencing in earnest in January.

 

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