Give Justin Trudeau credit for one thing: The man knows how to deflect. As news broke in recent weeks of the first vaccines against the coronavirus to pass phase 3 clinical trials, from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, and as it emerged the vaccines would begin distribution in some countries as early as next month, the Prime Minister could see the question coming: When will they be available in Canada?
The answer, we now know, is later: much later. Possibly months later. But as that might reflect poorly on the Prime Minister and the government he leads, he changed the subject.
“One of the things to remember is Canada no longer has any domestic production capacity for vaccines,” Mr. Trudeau admonished members of the media at his Tuesday news conference. “We used to have it decades ago, but we no longer have it. Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities, which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first.”
Maclean’s in August, University of Ottawa epidemiologist and law professor Amir Attaran offered one explanation: “Because the Trudeau government dithered. When our closest allies put their money down and placed orders for over a billion vaccine doses, our government failed to keep up.”
Perhaps that is why the government eventually purchased so many doses, among the largest, per capita, in the world – to make up in volume what it lost in timeliness. According to the Toronto Star, the way was open for it to pay a premium “to be near the front of the line,” and in some cases, the government took it. Could it have tried harder, acted sooner, bid higher? Or was the government, as Prof. Attaran suggests, blinded by “incompetent nationalism,” consumed with supporting long-shot local initiatives that failed to pan out, only to find it was too late to get first crack at the good stuff?
At any rate, hold on – it can only get worse. Even assuming Health Canada parts with the habits of a lifetime and approves the first vaccine more or less simultaneously with its U.S. and European counterparts, and even assuming the vaccines can be shipped to Canada in advance of approval, and stored (in super-cold conditions) until then, that still leaves the ultimate logistical nightmare: getting them into the arms of millions of Canadians, safely and speedily.
The track records of governments in this country, federal and provincial, do not fill one with optimism on this score. Even now, they are wrangling over how the vaccines should be allocated among provinces: whether it should be based on the number of people in each, or the number of cases, or the number of the elderly, or some other basis.
Quite what the people who, in eight months of trying, still can’t test more than about 50,000 people a day for the disease, will make of the challenge of vaccinating the entire population, one shudders to think. But if they’re even halfway done this time next year, it will be a pleasant surprise.
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