The Plague-Ground – Where will you be when the vaccine arrives?

If you’re in Canada, you could join the 37 million of us near the back of the line.

An article this week in the McGill Medical Journal tells a troubling tale: “75 million syringes but nothing to put in them: what is Canada’s plan for a COVID-19 vaccine?”

Over 100 labs around the world are racing to find a vaccine that’s safe, that works and that’s coming soon. Some of these labs are in Canada, but none of our candidates are front-runners. At best, our own vaccines could be available next summer.

Some of our candidates aren’t totally home-grown either, but rather joint projects with labs in other countries.

Nor have we struck deals for pre-orders with any of the leading candidates the way America has. It paid $1.95 billion for up to 100 million doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, which is one of the leading candidates. Last week the CEO of Pfizer told the US Congress that those doses should be ready by this December with 1.3 billion more on the way next year.

Nor have we done what Britain has: reserved 100 million doses from its own Oxford-Astra Zeneca candidate which could be ready this October and which the US has also bought 300 million doses of as well. Britain is also buying 30 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, plus 60 million more from the French pharma firm, Valneva.

In other words, Britain is spreading its risk in order to ensure its reward. According to the Associated Press: “The World Health Organization has said that multiple vaccine approaches are necessary for COVID-19, noting that the usual success rate for vaccine development is about 10%.”

Canada has not done any of this.

In fact, the only vaccine we’re close to filling our 75 million syringes with comes from a partnership between Dalhousie University and a Chinese company called CanSino Biologics.

Yes, Canada is staking its hopes for a vaccine on a nation it’s fighting with diplomatically and whose government can simply seize our share the way they have our citizens.

CanSino is also running human trials outside the normal regulatory approval process. The New York Times claims that “health experts have questioned why the Canadian government is allowing CanSino Biologics, which has teamed up with the People’s Liberation Army, to run human trials in the country. Rumors have spread about the authenticity of a Chinese-made vaccine that is being tested in Brazil…”

The People’s Liberation Army? Brazil?

These words are clickbait to some people, so a reminder: there’s nothing inherently good or bad about testing a vaccine on military members or in a country ravaged by COVID-19. That said, a CBC Report on this subject claimed that CanSino wouldn’t disclose if the inoculations were mandatory or optional and that the clinical trials skipped Phase 3 of testing entirely.

There is one other possibility for Canada to source a vaccine and that’s through our membership in CEPI, the Norwegian-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness which Ottawa has committed $40 million to. But my sense is that it lacks the clout to get its members to the front of the line, or even the middle when far more aggressive and wealthy national players will not hesitate to muscle in.

Muscle in?

Let’s not forget back in April the scramble for masks, the Canadian cargo planes forced to return empty from China, and the faulty Chinese masks we bought. Nor that the vaccine samples Canada was meant to get from CanSino for further testing in May haven’t been received, with no reason given for the hold-up.

This is not to say Ottawa isn’t worried. Its Vaccine Task Force meets regularly and as Dr. Theresa Tam said on Tuesday “….discussions are being pursued.” Meanwhile, a CTV report the same day detailed the growing concerns about the slow pace.

Growing concern doesn’t begin to describe what Canadians are awakening to.

We’re not talking here about a race to buy FitBits, but to save lives, thousands of our own and millions beyond our borders. What’s at stake is our entire economy.

The opportunity costs aren’t big; they’re vast and world-changing. Like Britain, Canada could buy into a vaccine that doesn’t work.

But the cost of putting all our hope, health and national security on just one candidate with not the best scientific credentials, is even greater.

So why not wait until we have a better view of which candidates will work, and then buy those vaccines?

Because the greatest cost of all is waiting for months after most other countries have vaccinated their own people to even begin to protect ours.

It’s one thing to rely on other countries for trade. It’s another to rely on the kindness of strangers for our very lives.

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11 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Where will you be when the vaccine arrives?”

  1. I have been railing about this for weeks. The WE scandal is awful and more of the same from this entitled, self serving group, but this issue is malfeasance of the highest order. Shockingly, the media is not focusing on this. And if the news that we are two years from a vaccine in Canada comes after an election, people are going to be incensed. This will impact lives and our economy, profoundly. People ought to get interested in this subject and quick!

  2. joseph rosenthal

    thank you Mr R for your usual insightful and always thoughtful words. after reading as always, i am most thankful i have a good supply of scotch on hand. keep up your very good work and take good care Bob.

  3. Hi Bob, thanks, as always, for your insightful and entertaining writing. As a country, we have a number of blindspots. Before the pandemic hit, the government dismantled its Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), crippling our ability to get an early heads-up that something was coming. In February, aware that a new Corona virus was causing illness in China, the government kept insisting there was a “low risk” to Canadians and shipped 16 million tonnes of PPE to China. And finally, most puzzlingly, in July the government approved a contract for Nuctech, a Chinese state-owned company, to build security equipment for our embassies. I smack my forehead. What were they thinking?

    1. Debora — I think to push Ottawa the way we would on any other issue to move more quickly and broaden its scope.
      Cheers. Bob

    2. Bernie — It boggles me how naive we are in dealing with China. I didn’t know the ‘security equipment for our embassies’ story.
      Makes Huiwai look benign.
      Cheers Bob

      1. The Nutech issue is offensive on many levels given the current hostile relations.

        Will write to the MP about broadening our options with the vaccine and the above.

        Hope it helps.

  4. Bob – another excellent post. Some of your posts particularly this one should be prominently featured in the Globe and Mail so as to receive a wider audience. I have increasingly been feeling late that we are such boy scouts. We blindly followed WHO advice when it was apparent that what they said was designed to keep peace with the Chinese when countries that were much more proactive did much better. This is a real scandal and the demise of the GPHIN is a real scandal. This is in contrast to the WE fake scandal which acres of wasted print space are being devoted to and where it is now clear that the civil service made the recommendation to go with WE and there was no conflict of interest on Trudeau’s part. I agree that the whole thing looks a bit seamy, particularly the charitable end of things but I don’t think Trudeau did anything wrong. As has been said before, in a pandemic, you have to make decisions quickly and you won’t always get them spot on. I do think Morneau should resign though. If he can’t manage his own financial affairs, how can he manage the country’s.

  5. Thanks again for another insightful & rather worrisome column. Time for everyone to write their MPs, copy those letters to health officials & media outlets. We need to get this conversation front & center.

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