Most Canadians could be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of next year, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer said today.
In recent days, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna have announced successful trials of their coronavirus vaccines. Dr. Howard Njoo said he is optimistic they can be approved by Health Canada and rolled out soon.
“Hopefully these two vaccines get approved, because we still have to look at the clinical data, the clinical trials to make sure our regulatory colleagues are comfortable and approve them and the other vaccines,” Njoo told reporters in Ottawa today.
“We’re looking at hopefully covering the vast majority of the Canadian population … by the end of next year. But like I say, this is something that is happening in real time and certainly there will be adjustments made as we move along.”
Canada has signed deals with several vaccine developers to reserve millions of doses under development to ensure Canadians have access to vaccines when they become available.
WATCH: Dr. Njoo on vaccine rollout
The federal government has agreements with Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and Novavax and Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. It also has deals with Sanofi/GSK, AstraZeneca and Medicago.
Canada will receive 20 to 76 million doses of each vaccine should they make it through clinical trials and be approved by Health Canada.
Pfizer announced last week that its vaccine has proven to be 90 per cent effective at protecting people from COVID-19 in a study that contained almost 44,000 subjects.
While those early results are promising, a key component of the vaccine has to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius — limiting delivery options once it has been approved by Health Canada.
Freezers being purchased
“Getting those vaccines from an airport tarmac or a port to Canadians right across the country is a significant logistical challenge, one which the government is focused on and working on ardently to be able to make sure that as vaccines arrive, they are getting out to the most vulnerable and the people who need it on a priority basis,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at his morning press conference today.
The prime minister said multiple government agencies and private contractors — and perhaps even the Canadian military — will be drafted to help with the delivery of the vaccine.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the military may be involved in the vaccine rollout because of its logistical expertise, while the federal government will play a significant role in meeting the challenges of distributing a vaccine that has to be kept very cold.
“I do know that yes, absolutely, sufficient freezers are being purchased,” she said. “Some are already. We’ve mapped out the ones already in Canada and the additional ones that might be needed.”
A government source speaking on background said that the federal government has purchased 26 freezers so far that can maintain temperatures of minus 80 degrees Celsius, and 100 freezers that can maintain a temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius.
The official said private companies such as UPS and FedEx, which have the ability to ship medicine at extremely cold temperatures, could be contracted to help.
Tam said that once vaccines are approved that can be stored at higher temperatures, distribution will be simplified and the provinces probably won’t need as much federal help in getting them out to the public.
Trudeau added that until a vaccine arrives, Canadians will need to take the usual precautions to “get the second wave under control.”
“This is good news, but remember — a vaccine can only protect you once you’ve gotten the shot,” he said.
Another factor for governments to consider is how to divide vaccine doses between provinces — an issue sources say was discussed during last week’s phone call between the prime minister and the premiers.
During that call, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs suggested governments ration the initial vaccine doses as they did with personal protective equipment in the early days of the pandemic. Higgs argued that provinces should only ask for the doses they need to protect their most vulnerable populations, allowing the rest to go to hot zones across the country.
“We’ve worked together on this so far, so it wouldn’t be time to all split and run in our corners … when a vaccine actually arrives,” Higgs told CBC News.
New Brunswick, like the rest of the Atlantic region, has kept its COVID-19 caseloads under good control due to travel limits and quarantine rules. Higgs said the bulk of his province’s 32 cases are related to travel — people who work abroad getting infected and coming home. He said allowing the initial vaccination efforts to focus on hot spots will make New Brunswick safer.
“The fewer hot zones that there are in places where we’re travelling, the less exposure we have in our communities here in New Brunswick. So there’s a direct connection,” Higgs said. “Having those situations addressed, no matter where it is in Canada, will be helpful for us in the long haul too.”
Higgs said his idea was discussed only in passing during last week’s meeting. He said a broader discussion could take place at a formal First Ministers meeting set for early December if there’s greater clarity on the vaccine front at that time.