The European Commission says it has already authorized a vaccine delivery to Canada and will apply COVID-19 vaccine export control restrictions only in “very limited cases.”
In a statement to CBC News, a Commission spokesperson said there have been only two requests for delivery, one from Canada and another from the UK.
“Member states have handled these requests very swiftly and these exports have been authorized in accordance with the opinion of the Commission. It proves that the system is working and that we will use it only in very limited cases,” the statement said.
Canada is aware that the EU has the duty to ensure that its citizens are vaccinated as soon as possible, the statement said, yet it does not want to deprive other countries from their own much needed vaccines, especially those that don’t have their own manufacturing capacity.
The statement explained that the aim is to get transparency and keep restrictions to an absolute minimum.
The statement confirms assurances that Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand gave at a COVID-19 update earlier Tuesday in which she said Canada would be getting its expected vaccine shipments from Europe this week.
“We have had conversations with our suppliers as recently as this morning and yesterday, who have assured us that the paperwork has been submitted, and that the shipments should be fine, for this week to leave the European Union,” Anand said. “We are expecting our shipments as a result, and all systems are a go for these shipments.”
Anand’s office confirmed to CBC that vaccine deliveries have already begun to arrive in Canada.
WATCH | Procurement minister says vaccine shipments should be fine to leave for Canada this week:
On Monday, Minister of International Trade Mary Ng said she and the prime minister had received a number of verbal assurances from European officials that Canada’s vaccine orders would not be affected by the controls. Opposition MPs said the government should have sought written guarantees to that effect.
On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Trudeau echoed Ng’s statements.
“The conversations I had with the president of the European Commission were enough to reassure me, and should be enough to reassure all Canadians, that the European Union is extremely mindful that Canada’s contracts be respected, and that our supply of vaccines not be interfered with,” Trudeau said at his morning press conference.
He added that in his phone conversation with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, she told him that the export controls were a transparency measure.
According to the European Commission website, “The objective of this measure is to ensure timely access to COVID-19 vaccines for all EU citizens and to tackle the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports outside the EU.”
Though there is a list of countries exempt from the export controls, Canada is not on it. Countries that are exempt include Norway and Iceland.
In a statement released Tuesday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole criticized the government for this exclusion.
“Why hasn’t Justin Trudeau secured an exception for Canada on the European Union export ban?” the statement asked.
When questioned about the EU export controls, Trudeau responded by saying that Canada needs domestic capacity to manufacture vaccine doses.
“Similarly on vaccines, even though we have strong assurances from the European Union that the transparency measures they’re bringing in will not affect Canada’s supply, it is only responsible and right for Canada to be investing as well in our domestic bio manufacturing capacity, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.
Vaccine supply crucial amid rise of variants
The concern over the EU exports controls, which critics have called a protectionist measure, come as public health officials raise the alarm about the threat from COVID-19 virus variants that are more infectious.
Three variants, one first found in the United Kingdom (B117 variant), one first found in South Africa (B351 variant), and one first found in Brazil (B.1.1.248 variant), have the potential to spread more easily.
“Canada is continuing to monitor for these variants,” Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said in a COVID-19 update Tuesday. She added that provinces have reported over 135 cases of the B117 variant, and at least 30 cases of the B351 variant.
In a separate technical briefing on Tuesday, officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) stressed the need to lower transmission rates to prevent further spread of variants and mutations.
“The more that the virus circulates … the more opportunity it has to mutate,” Dr. Guilleaume Porliquin, a PHAC researcher, said.
Officials said that while the number of confirmed variant cases within Canada is limited so far, PHAC is very concerned that the variants appear to be spreading communally.
On a brighter note, they said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines approved by Health Canada appear to offer full protection against the variants — though they added it’s uncertain whether this would hold true for future mutations.